sunset viewed from above cloudsSeptember 2004
by Kate Bernard

This is part of a narrative I wrote about my first flight in a Cirrus SR22 on December 27, 2001 with Thom Leveque

I was standing on the white sandpaper-like coating on the wing next to the door, breeze chilling my face, cloudy sky above, with my good pilot friend across from me saying, “Get in.”

Floor vibrating, radios silent, cockpit warm, we were sitting on the end of runway 32 and looking at thick white lines in front of us, pavement tapering to a point almost a mile away. I glanced up as far as the big curved front window would let me. I saw places where the clouds shimmered with a faint blue tint. But there were still no holes.

It was just after 4:00. I couldn’t see the sun but I knew it would be low. I hoped I would get to see it before it disappeared for the night.

Thom moved the simple flap knob to set half flaps and held the brakes. He was going to make the plane accelerate quickly. He moved the power lever all the way forward. The plane chomped at the bit, blasting air backwards but gripped by its brakes. It roared.

I held the sides of my seat and smiled even more widely.

“Ready?”

“Yep.”

Thom let go of the brakes.

Within what seemed like five seconds, we shot down the runway as if riding a cannonball, and we used less than a thousand feet of runway to take off. After takeoff, we were climbing so steeply I felt like we were hanging by the propeller. It was much higher performance than I was used to!

Once I noticed what was happening out my side window, I was in utter amazement. “Holy s**t!” was the best language I could manage as the world fell out from under us. We rocketed upward. Thom laughed and nodded his head when I glanced at him as if to say, “pretty awesome huh?”

I missed it at the time, but later, my co-worker Aaron would tell me what Lowell said into the UNICOM radio when he watched us take off: “Keep climbing like that and you’ll be in heaven by five.”

I looked at Thom and our faces communicated a thousand words. All I could do was utter, “Uhhhh….” which translated into “Wow, Thom, this plane can really climb.” He laughed and only smiled back at me as if to say, “Yeah, darn right it can!”

By the time we were over Clintonville, barely two miles from the end of the runway, a minute after takeoff, we were at 3,000 feet MSL. Thom lowered the nose, picked up another 20 knots of airspeed, and climbed at a “normal” pitch angle at 100 knots.

We desperately looked for a hole in the clouds. I even turned around and looked out the window in the back to make sure I wasn’t missing anything. We could only see dusky gray blobs that looked like they were vandalized by blue watercolors. And we were quickly approaching the ceiling. Thom leveled off at 4,000 feet, turned to circle the airport, and called center on the radio to get his IFR clearance. A minute later, we were cleared to climb through the clouds that loomed a thousand feet above us and to turn on course. I still had that book of approach plates on my lap. Thom sharply pitched the plane up to slow it to something like 80 or 90 knots again. At the same time, he began a turn to the south to get on course. The plane’s nose pointed at the bottoms of the clouds.

Suddenly the ground disappeared and there was nothing but white outside our windows. It was lighter above. These clouds weren’t horribly thick.

Hand-flying the airplane, Thom started laughing. I wondered, what could possibly be the problem now? “Look at this,” he laughed, pointing at the instrument panel.

I saw. The vertical speed indicator could display up to 2,000-foot-per-minute climbs and descents. Right now, the needle was pegged almost 90 degrees to the right and it pointed past the number two. We were climbing at over 2,000 feet per minute. “Holy!” I exclaimed. This was unbelievable. The instrument couldn’t even indicate our fast climb rate. This was the first airplane that I had flown in that had outperformed its own instruments using normal maneuvers. I wondered what the SR22 could do in even colder air with only a single person on board and a lot less fuel. We had two aboard and full fuel, and yet we were punching through the clouds like the proverbial homesick angel.

After only a minute, blue sky began to mix with wisps of clouds. We were reaching the tops. As suddenly as we entered, we burst out of the clouds into clear air. It was so bright and blinding that we immediately put on our sunglasses.

And it was beautiful up there.

It was just so beautiful. I smiled widely and stared. It was so beautiful that I could hardly absorb what I was seeing, as if it was not real. I had seen this before, but I never got tired of seeing it.

What a view.

The sun was getting low and it turned the southwestern sky to bright yellow. Everywhere else, the sky was as blue as the clearest of days. A solid blanket of very puffy stratocumulus clouds spread beneath us. The sun glinted off their peaks, creating gray shadows and emphasizing the bumps. The cloud tops looked like a level sheet for miles, except on the horizon ahead of us, where they rose like small mountains.

We truly were in heaven by five. As far as I was concerned, there was no more world below us. Up here, life was perfect.

The SR22 was a good viewing platform. Its huge windows offered an almost unobstructed view of the clouds and sky. The narrow wings didn’t block much of the view to the sides.

Thom said a few things to me, but I was too focused on the clouds to remember what he said. I was so thrilled that all I could manage for answers was, “Uh huh.” I snapped a few pictures.

Time and distance ceased to exist for a moment, and now all I thought of was that I was flying. None of my earlier worries came to mind. For a moment, I only thought of how I was flying in a great plane with a great guy and seeing great things.

Suddenly it dawned on me that I was still clinging to that book of approach plates that was open to a Clintonville page. I gave it to Thom to put away. We weren’t turning back.

Thom had a contagious passion for flying and living life to its fullest. He was lost in an airplane accident in December 2007 and will be forever missed by those whose lives he touched.