Meet me at Mt. Rui-revisited

That was the message a friend left on my voice mail two weeks ago. (sans the revisited) These days we both seem to have problems accessing the actual names of people and places, so if we draw a blank, we allow each other a lot of latitude and make something up. There really isn’t a place called Mt. Rui (as far as I know anyway) What she meant to say was please meet me for the weekend at our mountain home in Ruidoso, New Mexico.

As you can imagine, it took me about, oh, 10 seconds to weigh my options-Oklahoma, 105 versus Ruidoso,70. (tough choice, right?) I graciously accepted her offer.

“On my way to Mt. Rui.” I said on her voicemail. And then the journey began.

Now there isn’t any scheduled airline service into the Sierra Blanca Airport, the airstrip just 15 miles to the east of Ruidoso. So if I wanted to fly commercially, Roswell (home of the notorious alien nation) would be my closest option. I have to admit, I was tempted. I mean being a science nut, who wouldn’t be interested in throwing on their night goggles and finding out what in the heck all the alien ruckus is all about. But after studying the map more closely, I realized that the road trip from Roswell to Ruidoso was about two hours door to door. (one way) My schedule only allotted for two days of play-time, so I needed a faster mode of transportation.

Enter the Lancair-the plane I fly, please see the picture posted above. Looks a little different than Tana’s Falcon 2000, doesn’t it? (Now here comes a plot spoiler, not for the book of course, but for the Ruidoso story, so if you don’t want to know how this trip progresses, skip the next line) The picture was taken on the ground at the Sierra Blanca Airport, the Lancair is being towed to an overnight hanger with the newly named Mt. Rui in the background. The decision was made; I would fly myself into the seven peaks of Ruidoso.

Let the research begin. (If you find yourself with a little extra time and have any interest in seeing the terrain and airfield I’m referring to, go to download the free software and enter Sierra Blanca Airport, NM or if you are just dying to know more, try and enter KSRR-I used runway 24)

When my girlfriend called me back she ogled about how convenient it must be to fly yourself around. “No printing boarding passes 24 hours in advance, no TSA security protocols and the plane never leaves until you get there. Sweet,” she squealed. “You are so cool.”

I hung up the phone and swaggered over to the kitchen table, buzzed from the boost to my ego. Examining the sectional maps spread out on the table, reality quickly set in. (Get ready, here comes the rub.)

I’m not sure how many of you have been in that neck of the woods, but the Sierra Blanca Airport’s elevation is 6,870′. (Just as a point of reference, the Jones Riverside Airport in Tulsa, the Lancair’s home base, is a measly 638′)

“Big whip,” you say? (That’s my nephews line when they aren’t sure or are uninterested in what I’m talking about.)

Actually, it’s one of the bigger whips when it comes to airplanes and their engines.

Why you ask?(or I’m hoping you’d ask)

Density altitude. (don’t drift off just yet-I promise it will be quick)

Oh, before I go on, there is one thing you may already know. Airplane engines use air to develop thrust. (power) The more dense air into an engine, the more power it puts out. (the higher the altitude, the less dense the air.)

Okay, with that being said, here’s the long and the short of why airplane engines aren’t all that crazy about high elevations.

The facts:

the higher the elevation, the less dense the air-not as much volume for engine to suck in and convert to thrust

the warmer the air, the less dense the air-added with the high elevation, even less air for the engine to work with

humidity also affects the density, but let’s just stick to the basics- temperature and elevation.

So what I’m getting at is that at airports of higher elevation pilot’s can expect longer take-off distances, reduced rates of climb (a potential bummer flying in a single-engine airplane around the seven peaks of Ruidoso) and increased approach speeds that require much longer runways to land on.

If I throw in warmer temperatures (by warmer, I talking about anything above 60), the airplane’s ability to perform is further diminished. If the temperatures get hot enough, the engine may not be capable of performing safely in and out of high elevation airports. It’s kind of like your heart. Have you ever tried to exercise or even climb stairs when it’s really hot outside? Even the fittest person, may find themselves breathing a little heavier. (or if you are like me, feeling as if your heart may explode) That’s exactly how airplane engines act under those conditions.

So after careful calculations, I decided to get up at “the crack” (0530) and fly when it was cool. As you can see from the picture, I made the trip without incident. When I landed, the temperature was 58 and I touched down with more than enough runway to spare. It was first thing Friday morning.

After a day and a half of visiting and site seeing, my friend suggested we go out to dinner and celebrate our last evening together in Rui. (It was Saturday)

We got a table outside at The Inn of the Mountain Gods. I was enthralled by the majestic view. When the waiter came to the table, she ordered a glass of champagne. After all, this was a celebration right?

I politely asked for a glass of water with lemon.

“What?” Her face twisted. “Aren’t you going to have a cocktail with me?”

I looked at my watch. Have you ever been completely sure about what needs to be done and still have to fight the urge to do the very thing you know you cannot? Thoughts of the airport elevation, hot temperatures and my sluggish supercharged engine flew through my head. This is the perpetual pilot dilemma.

“I’m sorry,” I told her. “I would love to, but I know the responsible (and did I mention safe?) thing to do is opt for the dawn patrol (0530, again) and take-off before it gets too hot.”

I’m not sure what was worse, the disappointed look on her face or the absolute truth about engines and high density altitude. Either way, I was sure my cool-factor just dropped a few notches.

We still enjoyed a wonderful evening and got back home in bed by 10:30, so I would be clear-minded and rested for my early morning departure.

I rolled down the runway just as the sun broke the horizon. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw my friend frantically waving as I climbed away from the ground and headed on a easterly course back to Oklahoma. The air was cool and smooth as glass. The Lancair’s Continental Engine gulped air barrelling through the endless sky.

She was right about one thing, my dear friend-it is delightful to fly on your own terms. But all things worth while come with great sacrifice. My mind drifted to Tana and I couldn’t help but wonder would she ever take the risk and test this basic law of the universe? Time will tell.

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