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High or Low?

"You want to climb up through that hole and get on top?" asked Anders as we cruised along 500 feet below a layer of scattered fair-weather cumulus clouds.

It was mid-morning and we'd just departed Bend, Oregon for a VFR return flight to the San Francisco Bay Area. That weekend we'd participated in the Hayward Air Rally in our club's Cessna 172. For the previous two weeks, widespread air-mass thunderstorms had kicked off every afternoon throughout central Oregon, and the pattern was expected to continue. The ragged little clouds above us were likely to grow into towering cumulus later in the day, especially over the ridges surrounding the valley we were following.

Visibility was great, winds were light, and the cloud bases were just where they were forecast to be. Before we took off, reports along our route had shown similar ceilings. They were high enough to allow us at least 1000 to 2000 feet of terrain clearance most of the way. I considered Anders's suggestion.

"You know, I'd rather stay where we are," I answered him. "I know we can't out-climb those cumulus once the convection starts, and I really don't want to be on instruments with thunderstorms in the forecast."

"Yes, but it's early yet, and the clouds are scattered enough that we can probably stay VFR," Anders countered. "More altitude means more choices."

He had a point, but I didn't like our chances of remaining VFR if the convection developed earlier than forecast.

"I'd still rather keep the terrain in sight, especially with such good visibility, distinct ceilings, and airports and highways all along our route," I replied.

"You're the PIC," he said, and we left it at that.

We rarely disagree in the cockpit, but when we do, it's the pilot in command who makes the decision. On rally legs, Anders does the flying as PIC while I navigate. On the return trip, I'm the PIC. It balances out well.

Everything was going well as we passed to the Northwest of Klamath Falls headed for Weed. The ceiling remained high enough and the visibility excellent. The scattered clouds had become a broken layer, however, so we weren't going to climb any higher VFR. Our slimmest margin above terrain came as we followed Highway 97, passing about 500 feet over a sharp ridge that rose in front of us and then fell quickly away.

"How do you feel about your decision now?" asked Anders, as we crossed the ridge.

"I still like having the terrain in sight," I said, "especially with the clouds thickening above. Yes, we're close to the ground right here, but the winds are light, we have an escape route in either direction, and we can clearly see where we're going."

"Well, I'd be more comfortable with greater terrain clearance," he replied.

I could see the merits of both our arguments. More height above terrain means more options, but getting caught in IMC with thunderstorms popping and no way to see them is bad news. Given the circumstances, I'm still comfortable with my choice. I'd like to hear other opinions, though, so please feel free to leave a comment.

As we passed over the Strawberry Valley Southwest of towering Mount Shasta, we were treated to a spectacular sight. The cumulus over the ridges on either side had grown into great columns, while the clouds above us were still ragged and benign. We would soon leave the clouds behind as we headed out over the Sacramento Valley, but for the moment we found ourselves inside a magnificent cathedral, with the sun streaming through windows in the clouds.

"Wow—you can't beat this," I said to Anders as we cruised along at 9,500 feet. "This is amazing."

"Yes indeedy," Anders quickly agreed. "No argument here."

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