Pattern Altitude

Laszlo can be a pain. Laszlo emigrated from Hungary in the fifties. He was part of the uprising. Pity the Russians. He was especially peevish one day in 1967. Pacific Southwest Airlines cancelled our flight that morning. Laszlo arrived first and harangued in Hungarian on the sidewalk outside the terminal.

"How do they do that!" he shrieked.

"Good morning, Laszlo. Do what?"

A certifiable yuppie long before the term was coined, Laszlo at thirty-five was fully prepared for his middle years, limiting himself to a selection of facial expressions ranging between stern and disgruntlement. His long hair splayed at the temples but without sideburns, in some kind of Slavic style, an Ottoman but without a moustache.

He and I were scheduled to make a management presentation at a "due-diligence meeting" in Palo Alto. We had booked the 7:00 AM flight for San Francisco, a one-hour hop. The idea was to allow time for waiting out grid-lock on the Bayshore. Except for some high clouds, the weather was clear in Orange County that morning. Three hundred miles to the north, however, a ground fog was keeping PSA's equipment on the ground. San Francisco International would not be open for hours.

I tried to explain all this to Laszlo. "Our presentation, my friend, has met with a force majeure."

"We shall take your plane," Laszlo proclaimed.

"Fine by me," I said, not a little astonished.

Any number of times during the previous months, I had invited Laszlo to go up. He always declined.

"We saved you a seat," I had said most recently, giving Laszlo one last chance. "A couple of the guys want to buy me a buffalo burger at Catalina."

"I do not eat burgers."

What ever happened to thanks-just-the-same? I wondered. Now, all of a sudden, it's we-shall-take-your-plane time.

"The charts are in my car, Laszlo."

We rushed to the north tie-down area, which has since been replaced by a parking structure while high-rise buildings have crushed the surrounding orange groves and the airport changed its name to that of a cowboy star, John Wayne. Two-Four Fox with its raked rudder and sleek wheel farings crouched on the tarmac, eager to do the business of flight. I hurried through the preflight inspection, as Laszlo dried the morning dew from the plane's windows.

Off the runway by quarter of eight, the plane banked itself into a climbing turn toward the northwest. While dodging cumulus over Pomona, I obtained a weather briefing from Flight Service and filed a VFR flight plan. We flew directly to the Palo Alto Airport in two and a half hours. I requested a taxicab by Unicom. Our little plane touched down at about the time PSA's jets began their delayed shuttle runs for that day. Laszlo and I took our places in the conference room. I looked at my watch. Ho-hum. 10:35.

Capital formation is a high art. Thorough preparation pays off. Laszlo's presentation, methodical and precise, evoked confidence. We both faced tough questions. My contribution may have been limited to the inadvertent discovery of a flying enthusiast among the decision-makers -- the lead investment banker, as it turned out.

"Call me Mack," he said, shaking my hand as he sat down next to me at lunch. Freckles covered his face and hands and the top of his forehead. All through the morning, this fellow, who was well into his forties, had peppered us with questions. Now, I listened as he described with misty eyes a recent airplane adventure -- his first solo. I deliberately left it to Laszlo, at the other end of the table, to disclose our mode of transportation for this trip.

Eventually, I heard Laszlo being asked the time of our return flight. "We came," Laszlo said to our hosts, "by private plane."

"Who's the pilot?" asked my table-mate.

Laszlo nodded toward me and changed the subject. I winked at Mack. Being nonchalant is part of piloting. Read Ernest Gann.

During the afternoon session, Mack was just as tough. This time, though, he was on our side dismissing the challenges of the other inquisitors. He insisted on driving us back to the airport.

"Flying an airplane," Mack said, "was my dream since childhood. I waited, though, until my kids were through college." At the airport, Mack stood nearby smiling while I paid the fuel bill and called for a weather briefing.

"What does it look like?" he asked.

"There's a dissipating front south of San Jose across our course. The Los Angeles Basin has a deep, solid overcast. Bases at 4,000. I don't like that. Freezing level is 10,000 feet. We must cross the Tehachapi Range high enough to remain clear of the clouds. By doing so, we run the risk of getting trapped on top. Stations inland from the coastal mountains, however, are reporting scattered. Winds aloft are from the south at 20 knots, a quartering headwind. My strategy is to fly above the weather along Victor 107 to Palm Springs, where it's scattered. After an early dinner, we can sneak through the Banning Pass, underneath to Orange County."

Mack nodded his head and grinned. "Still a lot for me to learn about cross-country."

Laszlo and I picked up our briefcases. Mack followed us to the plane. He unchocked the wheels and watched me perform my walk-around. I reached for the small oxygen bottle I keep stowed beneath the seat. Its pressure gauge indicated nearly empty. Enough to clear my head, maybe, just prior to landing.

"Oxygen will be required?" Laszlo asked.

"Depends on how high you guys go," Mack answered, "and how long you stay up there, right?"

I nodded, half expecting a pompous I-do-not-breathe-oxygen declaration from Laszlo. "I'm looking at only thirteen-five to Lancaster," said I.

"My ground school is just getting into flight physiology," Mack said. "Last week it was hypoxia."

The symptoms of hypoxia vary with each individual, although the higher brain functions are always impacted first. According to some reports, mild hypoxia can be quite pleasant. Similar to being intoxicated. Most people just get sleepy. The pilot, however, needs all his faculties for the safe conduct of flight. 

Back in 1965, some guy out of Reno landed his Cherokee at Bakersfield, left a fuel order, and went into the restaurant for a cup of coffee. 

Later, the line boy came in and asked the pilot what he was planning to do with his plane. "Fly it home," said he. "Just as soon as I finish my coffee."

The line boy laughed. "With the propeller all bent up?"

The pilot, thinking that somebody had damaged his Cherokee while it was parked on the ramp, bolted out the door. The propeller was bent, all right, and the nose gear was crunched, too. But the cause was not obvious. 

The trip from Reno to Bakersfield along the eastern slopes of the Sierra Nevada mandated a high cruise altitude. The Cherokee carried no supplementary oxygen. 

According to the incident report, after spending three hours at 13,500 feet, the pilot only faintly recalled a "harder than normal" landing at Bakersfield. 

"It doesn't take much hypoxia for a pilot to prang up a plane," I commented.

"I do not understand 'prang'," said Laszlo.

"Damaged," Mack explained. "A porpoised landing can prang the nose gear -- or worse."

Laszlo probably did not understand 'porpoised' either. Too bad for Laszlo.

I strapped on my knee board and began unfolding charts.

"How do you know when you need oxygen?" Laszlo asked.

"Best to plan for it in advance," Mack said with a chuckle. "Like in business."

I put away the oxygen bottle, hoping Mack had not noticed the gauge. He watched as I positioned the flight log on my knee board. I extended my hand.

"For our next meeting, I'll bring an oxygen bottle," I said. "The better to answer your questions with."

"Don't worry about that," Mack said. "I look forward to working with you."

Laszlo was already in the plane.

As I cranked up the engine, Mack saluted. I waved back and taxied away. I rocked the wings on the upwind leg. I knew Mack would be watching.

"You will be home in time for 'Ozzie and Harriet,'" I hollered over the roar of our Continental 230.

"I do not watch a television," said Laszlo.

Whoever alleged that a sense of humor is a sure sign of high intelligence never met Laszlo. His gifts include infallible memory and incisive logic. Turn off the lights, he glows in the dark. Something ought to be missing, one almost hopes. I set up our heading for the climb.

"You don't watch 'Mr. Ed'?" I taunted. "How about 'Bowling for Dollars' or 'Gilligan's Island'?"

"We should receive our financing in two months."

"With Mack's support, maybe sooner, Laszlo," I said. "I'll bet he watched 'Sky King' with his kids." I adjusted the trim and sat back in my seat.

I called Flight Service and opened our flight plan to Palm Springs. We climbed through 6,000 before either of us spoke again.

"Laszlo, I must say, you gave one hell of a canine and equine performance. Congratulations."

"They asked irrelevant questions," he said.

Whatever happened to you-did-well-too? I wondered to myself.

"Do you know how I could tell Mack is a pilot?" I asked. Laszlo shrugged indifferently. "Three clues," I answered myself. "First, there is Mack's haircut: short and parted on the left." I waited for Laszlo, who has long hair parted on the right, to register disbelief. He remained impassive. "Second, his rudder-pedal walk. Very coordinated. That's a gimme."

We reached nine-five. A solid stratus deck below us. The frontal system came into view up ahead. I began studying the chart, frowning.

"Three clues, you said."

"You know, Laszlo, I think we'll go on up to thirteen-five." I leaned the mixture and scanned the sky ahead.

Laszlo squinted at the clock-like hands on the altimeter. "Why do you choose that particular altitude?"

"Odd thousand plus five-hundred." I replied, looking askance at Laszlo. "You're not superstitious, are you?"

Cumulus clouds are piled high to the right of our course. Miles and minutes go by. I can see that 13,500 feet is not enough. Better divert further east. Laszlo has dozed off, his glasses askew. Flying over a cloud deck like this, I remind myself that it is a good idea to stay on the Victor airways. I can see on the chart that Victor 248 angles to the left at Avenal to Bakersfield. From there, we can proceed southeast again on Victor 197 to Palmdale. Been a full day; not sleepy, though.

We are doing some fine flying now. Dodging weather. Looking up frequencies. Logging checkpoints. Hoo-hah. Giving position reports. Amending ground speed estimates takes too much time, though. Better to take cross-bearings periodically and enjoy the view. Should be a whopping sunset. My chronometer indicates more than two hours since takeoff. Station passage at Palmdale. Clouds breaking up below, just like the forecast said. Established on Victor 137. Less than a hundred miles to go.

"Have a good nap, Laszlo?"

"In Hungary, I could be a pilot."

"Put your feet on the rudder-pedals. I'll teach you all you need to know."

"I will not cut my hair."

"Beg your pardon? -- oh, you mean like Mack."

"When Mack's check clears the bank, then I cut my hair," Laszlo averred, clapping me on the shoulder. "Then you teach me rudder-pedals."

The sun is a red blaze on the horizon. I can see the desert and some low hills. The omni station at Palm Springs is coming in strong. The needle centers. Time to plan our let-down.

Choosing the exact moment to begin your descent requires more computation than any other aspect of flight. With all the advances in onboard electronics and navigation, including LORAN and GPS, there is still no automation of the procedure. Not that planning your descent is any kind of a chore. 

At least one pilot experiences great fulfilment when, after initiating the descent at the precise fix, he watches the altimeter unwind to pattern altitude, exactly 800 feet above the runway, just as the plane reaches the airport. Get a load of that! 

Start down too early and you must re-apply power to level off and then cruise along noisily for miles just above utility poles and church towers. Too late, and you arrive too high and have to explain to your passengers why you're dinking around in the sky making them wait to use the restroom.

First, you determine the pattern altitude for the destination airport. You then subtract that from your cruise altitude, which in our case is -- that's strange -- the big hand is on the three and the little hand is on the five. That's 15,300 feet. Sometime while I was not looking Two-Four Fox did a little climbing. Highest I've ever been.

Where was I? Oh right, you subtract the pattern altitude from your cruise altitude. At 500 feet per minute, it will take two minutes per thousand feet to descend. You put that time on your E6B opposite your airspeed -- or is it groundspeed? -- to get descent distance. You make a mark on your course line at that distance from the destination airport. Finally, you estimate your time of arrival at that point. That's when you should start your descent. See? -- my brain is as good as Laszlo's.

"What was the third clue?" asked Laszlo. "Was it some secret handshake that only short-haired pilots know about?"

"Mack told me."

Laszlo dramatized his request by clasping his hands together. "Please give me the secret of your deductive powers."

"I just did, Laszlo. At lunch, Mack told me he's a student pilot."

Laszlo laughed, a rare event. "I do not call that a clue."

The first step is to determine the pattern altitude. You do this by adding 800 feet to the field elevation of the destination airport. Palm Springs is at 448 feet above sea level. Adding 448 plus 800, you get -- that's easy, you get -- I took my pencil and started figuring on my knee pad.

"No secret hand shake?"

"Go back to sleep."

Laszlo began to sing, "I could be a pilot-man / Above the clouds I soar / But I don't let the barber-man / Cut my hair no more."

Instead of adding 800, you can add 1,000 and subtract 200. So, 448 plus 1,000 is 1,448. Now add 200, and you get -- that can't be right. The problem is made unnecessarily difficult by the 48 feet. To round that off, you take the eight which is larger than five and adding one to the four. Now you have 50, which is half way to 500, so we add 100. Then taking the 600 plus 1,000 is 1,600. Plus the 200 is 1,800 feet, our pattern altitude. Maybe.

"Prang me no more, my darlin'," sang Laszlo with a Slavic drawl.

Before going on to the next step in the calculation, let me check the ground below. Aha! There's an airport down there. It's -- why, it's Palm Springs, of course. Almost directly below us.

Laszlo is still singing. In Hungarian now. Every other word sounds like "porpoise."

Guess we are a bit overdue for the start of our descent. Better tune up the tower and talk. "Palm Springs Tower, this is -- Laszlo, keep it down for a minute -- this is Skylane Two-Eight-Two-Four Foxtrot, by your station at, uh, 15,000, descending."

"Two-Four Fox, understand one-five thousand?"

"That's affirmative."

"What are your intentions?"

"Well, we want to land there," said I patiently.

"Roger that. Two-Four Fox, make right traffic for Runway Three-Zero. Wind is two seven zero at eight. Altimeter two niner niner eight. Report downwind abeam of the tower."

"Who is Roger?" asked Laszlo.

I reduced power and keyed the microphone. "OK, uh, Two-Four Fox will report abeam."

Not waiting for my answer, Laszlo composed and performed a new song, "Oh, Roger is a pilot-man, / He zooms along like this. / He better land real soon, I say, / So I can take a piss."

From someplace inside my head came the decision to fly toward the east to let down. Splendid. The sun has set behind Mount San Jacinto. A realization begins. That is not your normal Laszlo. The plane commences slow turns. I know why he is different: Laszlo has got it. Hypoxia, for sure. Good thing I'm the pilot, not him. The altitude doesn't bother me. Lazy circles in the sky.

The engine is starting to run rough. Could be carburetor ice, so let's apply some heat. I'm breathing the same air Laszlo is breathing and doing just fine. Push in the throttle to clear the engine, and -- it coughs. Never had that before. Coughs again. How curious.

Laszlo stopped singing.

Altitude 4,000. I blinked my eyes. "Look at that mixture control there. What is that red knob doing, pulled out like that?" Altitude 3,000. "Push it in," I tell my right hand. "Where's the airport again?"

Pattern altitude is -- wait a minute. I tried that once. Laszlo's super-brain went wacko and I can't add worth shit.

"Hey Laszlo, reach me that oxygen bottle, will you?" I had completely forgotten about it.

"Roger," said Laszlo, officiously.

I donned the mask then looked out the window. Sagebrush was whizzing by just below the wheel faring. Sagebrush, hmm. "Push in the throttle," said I into the mask. My right hand obeys. That'll be fine, we're level at -- well, at 900 feet. Above sea level, surely.

The cabin speaker crackled. "Two-Four Fox, is that you, about two miles out on the forty-five?"

I took off the mask and picked up the microphone. "That's us," I answered with a sigh.

"You are low. Pattern altitude at Palm Springs is thirteen hundred."

So that's what it is. I better write it on my knee-board here somewhere. You aren't the only one, Laszlo. I got it, too.

"OK if we circle out here for a while?" I asked the tower.

"Lefthand turns approved, pilot's discretion. Maintain pattern altitude. Report re-entering downwind."

"Roger." I put the mask back on and took a deep breath.

Staying out there for another fifteen minutes may just have kept somebody I know from pranging up Two-Four Fox.

In the restaurant, I went over the crude pencil marks on my knee-pad. I have saved that flight log as a souvenir. It was easy to see the evidence of gradual oxygen deprivation.

"The trip through the Banning Pass will take about 45 minutes," said I. "Too late for 'Ozzie and Harriet' after all." I ordered a hamburger.

"I do not eat burgers," Laszlo said.

"Want to know something, Laszlo?"

He didn't answer. Just studied the menu.

"I liked you better at 15,000 feet."

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