Gear Up: Breaking Out

(November 2011) Just another couple hundred feet should do it; the cloud is much lighter now. There are rips and tears in the fabric of the moisture. If I crane my neck I can see some blue up there; at least I think it is blue. I can feel the sun trying to get through.

Then, suddenly, the last wisp sheds and the airplane and I are in the clear. We’ve “broken out on top,” and I find it to be one of life’s most satisfying feelings. The sense of speed is always exhilarating, but sometimes the sense of relief predominates. Relief is the more important feeling if we’re near our highest assigned altitude or if we’re close to the airplane’s service ceiling. The relief is even more welcome if we’re escaping bad weather, laden down with ice and wondering if this whole thing was such a good idea after all.

When you first get your instrument rating, clouds are mystifying things that harbor all sorts of potential peril. When you take off into cloud, there’s always a sense of anticipation as to what might be in there. Over time, those perils boil down to turbulence, ice and noisy precipitation. When slowly climbing in a single-engine airplane, the tops are of vital interest. That welcome light from above signals you’re getting close.

Even as I graduated to more capable airplanes, the sense of relief, accomplishment (the airplane’s, not mine) and safety never diminished. Come to think of it, breaking out on top seems like a metaphor for much of life. When faced with a daunting project at work, a paper to write, for instance, there comes a point when I feel like I have the task in hand. In big cancer surgical operations, there is often a point when the anxiety gives way to the realization that this is going to work out. I’ve got this; we’re on top here.

I read recently where the tech wizard Steve Jobs was quoted as saying he had really needed to be fired from Apple and to get cancer in order to trust his own view of the world. When faced with these tragedies, he started to feel he had nothing to lose and stopped worrying about what people thought of him. He had broken out on top. Even Jane Fonda has said something similar, so it must be so.

There are times when friendships break out of cloud and become clearer. Even if they aren’t what you might have originally hoped them to be, you understand them better. Things are more clarified. Sometimes those friendships are even better than I dared hope for; they have become all the more important because there was some cloud to climb through before the sense of bright sunlight and enjoyment could be fully appreciated.

If there is bad weather somewhere on the route, I’ve always preferred to take off in good weather and head toward bad conditions rather than the other way around. If I get going in clear air, I can always turn around if I don’t like what I see ahead. That’s not the case when you are taking off into weather so lousy that you can’t legally turn around and land. In airline and Part 135 operations, acceptable landing weather may be as much as an hour away. Busting out on top is really nice on those days.

All airplanes have slower climb rates as they get toward the top of their capability. Even Lears run out of gas as they get up toward FL 510. You won’t find much in the way of cloud up there, unless you’ve wandered into the top of a really bad thunderstorm, in which case you may be pleased to find yourself so close to God that you might be able to get his or her attention more quickly due to proximity.

In less capable airplanes (notice I didn’t say “lesser airplanes”), the last few thousand feet of climb in cloud can produce some worry. I’ve read many times that icing is worse close to the tops, and I think that’s a fact. As your climb rate slows, airspeed diminishes and the ice builds up, even that last few hundred feet can seem like infinity.

I remember flying from Narita in Japan to Los Angeles in an MD-11 that could not get above FL 290 for the longest time due to weight. We got pounded right there in the tops. When I spied the captain on his rest break, I asked the simpleton’s question: Why couldn’t we get higher? His demeanor was one of sad resignation; his response was succinct: “We’ve got Star Wars avionics and a 1950s wing” was all he said before he buckled himself in for a nap.

Ah, but that feeling of vaulting out of the gray. The sudden sun has brightness all the more blinding because of the murky environment from which you’ve just freed yourself. The ice begins to sublimate. You level off and watch with satisfaction as the airspeed creeps up. The warmth of the sun helps the heater along. How does that old song go? “I can see clearly now, the rain is gone ... ”

If you are fortunate enough to be assigned an altitude close to but not in the tops, you get access to that one time when cruise airspeeds can actually be experienced viscerally. Most of the time, even or especially in fast airplanes, the numbers on the instruments are abstractions. Sure, we’re doing 470 knots over the ground in a Lear 31 at FL 410, but it feels like we’re sitting still. But tearing along at 110 knots in a Beechcraft Musketeer some 40 years ago, watching the cloud dart beneath the wing, I first saw how really fast we were going. Today, in the Cheyenne that my wife and I own, the same sensation reminds me of my 14-year-old M3 BMW. Driving it in the mountains of New Hampshire and Vermont in the summer with the windows down and the volume up comes close to the same feeling of luck, excitement and the allure of all things powered by fossil fuels. Man, that feels good.

It is fair to say that we all lose perspective sometimes. I know that I need to remind myself of my almost unpardonable good luck in life (a Cheyenne and an M3? Come on!) when I start to get truculent about some minor irritation. The best way for me is to think of that breaking-out-on-top feeling. Like many aspects of flying, it puts things into a more understandable relief. There are the technical aspects of the flight, to be sure; they serve to present the mind with real puzzles to be solved right then and there if you have any real interest in landing safely; but more than that, there is the larger view available to us from up there. Petty slights can be mulled over and put in perspective. Plans can be concocted, resolutions made, imaginary conversations whispered out softly and a sense of life triangulation attained. Steve Jobs was right, you learn. If you are close to the tops but above them and the weather ahead is good, the sense of well-being cannot be denied.

Recently I had a conversation with an airline pilot friend of mine. He’s lucky; he works for one of the best and most successful airlines ever to take flight. He “knows” this intellectually but, like all of us, finds the petty annoyances to be real. With a grin, he told me that he recently flew with a cranky first officer who could find nothing good to say about anything. All my friend said to him was this: “When is the last time you broke out on top?” To which the FO, who had thought by now he’d be captain, said just this: “Thanks, I needed that. I’ll see you on the jetway.”

A career, which is a fancy name for a job or series of jobs, has its own arc with some obvious similarities to flight. There’s the education and preparation and all the hard work of the neophyte. Then the climb up the ladder begins. At some point it becomes clear that you may not become president of the world, but you do enjoy what you do and you are pretty good at it. You have broken out on top. Please enjoy.

Dick Karl
Dick KarlAuthor
Dick Karl is a cancer surgeon who appreciates the beauty and science involved in both surgery and flying. Dick’s monthly Gear Up celebrates the human side of flying. He writes about his enthusiasm for both the machines and the people who fly and maintain them.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Subscribe to Our Newsletter

Get the latest FLYING stories delivered directly to your inbox

Subscribe to our newsletter