The cloud were building beautifully over the California coast range. I was back from college for the weekend and itching to fly, so I grabbed my camera and hopped into one of the Fresno Sky Riders Club Cessna 150s. It was a 1963 model with the standard Continental O-200 engine, producing 100 galloping horsepower — no modifications, full fuel, calm day over the San Joaquin Valley with no updrafts. The fun weather was 60 miles to the west over the mountains. I was a skinny college kid, and 62Z took off smartly.
At the time, another young club member and I had a running competition (though not terribly serious) over who could take a 150 higher. The record was mine at that time — about 12,000 feet — because my friend was a little girthier than I. But an altitude record was not on my mind this beautiful fall 1971 day. I figured the cumulus would top out at about 8,000 or 10,000 feet, and my photo flight would be over.
Half a roll of Kodachrome slides later, the little airplane and I were at 12,000 feet, and both the clouds and Cessna’s finest trainer were still climbing nicely. I wondered if we could make it another thousand or two feet higher and seal the deal for the club altitude record. I kept climbing. By 14,000 feet I started to wonder how much higher the little airplane could go. I kept climbing: 16,000 feet, still climbing, 17,000 feet, still climbing and eking out a little more than 100 feet per minute.
At 18,000 feet, I took out my camera and set up for a shot of the panel to prove I actually made it to this altitude. I knew no one would believe me otherwise. Still ascending at 100 fpm, I steadied the camera and snapped off a shot with the altimeter now showing 18,300 feet. I was euphoric.
As I set the camera down and looked out the windscreen, I noticed something I had never seen before from the vantage point of my airplane — a Hughes Airwest DC-9 in its banana-yellow livery cruising straight and level only a few thousand feet above. I can only imagine the conversation between the captain and the first officer, if they even saw the little speck of blue-and-white Cessna below them.
The sight of that airliner nudged enough rational thought back into my brain to make me decide that mixing it up with airliners was not a wise idea, and I set up a gentle descent for Chandler Field. Not, however, before pulling out the chart to write down the date, time and location where this record flight took place. I was a history major, and this flight needed to be commemorated.
There were two problems with this. First, I could not figure out where I was. The world looks a lot different at 18,000 feet than it does at a few thousand feet, and this was long before GPS took the sport out of figuring out where you are. But with an educated situational guess, I picked up my pen, which brings me to the second and bigger problem. I could not make the pen do what I wanted it to.
Hypoxia! For the first time it dawned on me that I was experiencing a lack of oxygen due to the thin air at this altitude. My poor judgment (or, more accurately, the utter lack of it) that was evident in my continuing to climb into the high teens without oxygen, the euphoria, the inability to write — it all made sense now.
I had to get down to an oxygen-rich environment, and I had to get down now. I dropped the nose to begin a descent — not fast enough. I dropped the nose a little more but kept some power to avoid shock-cooling the engine — still not fast enough. I dropped the nose a little more, speed now increasing through the yellow caution band — still dead calm over the big San Joaquin Valley and now just brushing up against the 162 mph redline. And I was still not descending fast enough. I’d better do the opposite: slow it down, ease off power, full barn door flaps down. There we go: altimeter unwinding faster, now we are at 5,000 feet and all is well. Wait! That’s 15,000 feet, not 5,000 feet!