Magic moments often come when you least expect them. They are usually fleeting, but the memories they leave you with last forever. This one happened in 1988 when Dave Goulet, Don Zank and I were on our way back from Sun ĎN Fun.
We had spent the better part of 2 weeks having a wonderfully carefree getaway. The first 4 or 5 days, we meandered our way through an accelerated spring from snow flurries and flooding in Illinois to the early springtime green (blue?) grass of Kentucky, through the blossoming ridges of Tennessee to the fresh greens in the forests and hills of northern Alabama and Georgia and on to full summer foliage in Florida.
This was followed by a week at a wonderful aviation event with lots of fascinating displays, daily air shows and thousands upon thousands of like-minded people all getting a big aviation fix. To top it all off, on the final day of the show, the EAA honored the three of us with a ďFlight of DistinctionĒ award at their awards banquet. In those days it was relatively unheard of to fly an ultralight so far.
In any event, all good things come to an end and we were now headed back to the real world. This particular day we were flying north through the rising foothills of the southern Appalachian chain west of Atlanta. Itís a lovely region, relatively unpopulated with extensive areas protected forever as national forests.
The sky was overcast at about 2000 feet as we departed La Grange, Georgia heading north west into a light head wind. As we passed into Alabama, the ceiling had descended to perhaps 1500 feet AGL. In fact the ceiling wasnít lowering, instead the ground was slowly rising, creating an ever shallower wedge of clear air in which to fly.
Normally, I make a habit of flying my Challenger so that I always remain landable. Itís an old glider habit that I have never lost and itís easy to do in the Challenger. When itís hospitable, I like to enjoy the view from down low, going around bad areas when I can, or when I canít, getting high enough so that in the event of a problem, I can glide to a suitable spot. With the low speed and inertia of these little planes, I need very little room to put down, so itís a lot easier to do than in heavier, faster G/A airplanes.
We were now flying into the Talladega National Forest, so there were no fields whatsoever and it was totally unlandable. At this point, it makes little difference whether weíre high or low, so we came down to tree top height to enjoy the view. And what a view. From that height the forest looks like a roughly cut lawn, with occasional tree tops standing a little above the rest like decorative shrubs. Here and there a stream would carve through the forest providing a scenic nature path to follow, occasionally opening to a pond or little lake. Glimpses of wildlife below added to the magic as did the occasional hawk or eagle that we would flush from the tree tops.
In the meantime the ground continued to rise, so where we had initially flown low voluntarily, we now did so out of necessity. There remained only a shallow band between forest and cloud. We didnít have far to go so we kept on, knowing we had plenty of fuel to turn back if our passage became blocked. And before long, blocked it became.
A steep and seemingly endless ridge rose up from the ground ahead, perhaps a couple of hundred feet high with its top in the cloud, blocking our route like the great wall of China. It was clear that the ridge was creating the cloud layer, as air coming up the other side was reaching its saturation point at the top and condensing into a layer of cloud that flowed downwind over us like a great gray roof. It felt as if we were flying in a vast building with a floor and a ceiling but only one wall. A strange but fascinating environment I had never before experienced.
It seemed we would have to turn back, as there was no apparent way through. Before doing so though, we decided to explore a little way along its length in case there might be some way across. Randomly, we headed west and before long we could see a brightening a few miles ahead. As we approached, we could see sunlight penetrating the wall, brightening a tiny portion of the floor in this vast, darkened room. With the cloud above spanning the gap, it looked just like a little hole in the wall with sunshine and a beautiful day beyond.
It was like looking out a little window from a drab and dreary basement. A small rural highway also chose this spot to thread its way through. In we flew, with the floor, walls and ceiling squeezing in on us as we popped out the hole. We emerged squinting and semi blinded by the bright sunshine and blue skies we found beyond.
I turned along the upwind face of this vast ridge that stretched away to the horizon in front and behind me and predictably found a smooth surge of lift as the wind pushed the air mass up and over the obstacle. The little window that had looked so cheery and inviting from the other side, looked like a foreboding black hole from this side. The others had stayed on course so I reluctantly followed, having to force myself away from this fascinating circumstance.
It wasnít to be my last meeting with the hole in the wall however. Four years later heading the other way, Don Zank and I stopped for fuel at the airport in Talladega, Alabama alongside the famous southern speedway. Several other itinerants were stuck there in various VFR airplanes waiting for the weather ahead to clear. It seems that earlier forays south had found our ridge was once again up to its tricks, creating a layer of cloud beyond. They could go over it, but with the ground obscured below and beyond, there was no way to get back down through.
Don and I looked at each other, fueled up and departed without saying anything. Being an ex car racer I couldnít resist a quick airborne lap around the deserted race track before we were away. When we got there, our little hole in the wall was just as we had last seen it. The relative darkness on the other side made it impossible to see if it was clear beyond, so Don waited on the upwind side while I went in for a peek. This was not something Iíd have done in my Piper Tomahawk that I had back home, but in the Challenger with its low speed and very tight turning ability, there would be no problem turning back if it was blocked, but we felt it better not to be tripping over each other in the confined passage.
As expected, it was fine. I called back to Don, and through the hole he came. It was all downhill from there as the fascinating but now familiar film played back to us, this time in reverse.
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