20th March 2021
It’s the first day of spring and in the city of Bolzano, it’s a beautiful hot sunny day. Thomas, a friend who’s also in the process of getting his private pilot license, and I decide to take off from the city airport (LIPB 46°27’37”N 11°19’35”) and fly to Asiago (LIDA 45°53’13”N 11°31’00”E) to enjoy a nice Saturday lunch there.
Both the departure and the arrival aerodromes are very peculiar, being located in the middle of the west Italian Alps. Bolzano is not very high in elevation at roughly 800ft, but it is an international airport that is a 5 minute flight from the group of the Dolomite Mountains; and a 40 minute flight from the plateau of Asiago. Asiago, aside from being famous for its cheese, is also where the highest elevation airport in Italy is located at 3409ft. This might not seem a lot compared to some French altiports but this one is open to all general aviation traffic and has 1100 meters of runway. It also has been able to host the Falcon 900 of the Italian president. Moreover, in Asiago, you can land only in one direction (RWY 08) and take off in the opposite one (RWY 26) due to the presence of high mountainous terrain at one end of the runway.
That said, we took off from Bolzano heading south towards LIDA. The sky is looking great and thanks to the 180 horsepower of our mighty Husky, we quickly gained altitude. Also, taking advantage of all the thermals rising from the mountain sides of the valley, having 11 meters of wingspan, are pretty effective.
In a few minutes, we reached 6000 feet and levelled there to begin the cruise.
This is considered the safe altitude to approach Asiago from the north. Here we know we can overfly most of the length of the mountain ridges that separate the two airports. Some 8000ft peaks are still in the way but those are big and easy to distinguish even in low visibility conditions.
The flight was proceeding well, the sun was shining and the first clouds were starting to form due to the heating of the ground.
As we continued to fly south, we started noticing a few more little cumulus clouds. Thinking that it was just some normal convective activity, we proceeded. Little did we know of what we would have met later...
Before departing and getting all caught up in the excitement of such a nice day at our home airport, we hadn’t done a meteo briefing at all, thinking to find the same conditions also 100 miles south. If we had looked at a pressure chart, we would have clearly noticed a cold front splitting longitudinally along the Alps.
Be as it may, after roughly 20 minutes of flight, we easily noticed this presence.
The first little clouds were easy and fun to dodge, verging them with the wing tips.
But those innocent wads started to become bigger and denser every mile we proceeded.
We approached two thick stratus clouds.
The upper one was overcast at roughly 10 thousand feet, too high up to fly over it. And the lower one was broken almost at ground level; so we decided to fly in between them.
As we entered it, the sun disappeared behind the clouds and ambient lighting got softer and gloomy. The outside air temperature quickly dropped by 10 degrees and some strong gusts of wind started punching the plane left and right.
Our ground sight was reduced to almost zero and the only things that were left to see among the white were some shy peaks that also got covered in a matter of minutes.
At this point, all the mountains around us were obscured, making it impossible to know if behind a cloud was clear skies or some hungry high ground waiting for us to crash into it.
Fortunately, this wasn’t the first time I was flying this route and I am familiar enough with the area to be comfortable with what I was doing.
As we proceeded, a clear spot on the lower stratus allowed us to recognize our position perfectly. We were just in front of the last mountain ridge before our destination.
Usually, at this point, if the visibility is good enough we would have started descending towards a secondary valley that would have taken us directly in front of the runway threshold. But that day, given the particular cloudy condition that was covering the terrain, I decided to keep our safe altitude and continue straight ahead.
This turned out to be the best choice. A few minutes later, a passage through the clouds appeared, showing us the airport. Without letting this chance escape us, we dived straight into that opening and reached the downwind side of the pattern. A few quick checks and we turned into final, landing then in Asiago.
We vacated at the end of the runway and parked right in front of the restaurant.
Just in time to fill in some papers, we were already seated at the table waiting for our slices of homemade cake to arrive. (To have cake for lunch was another good decision made during the flight).
Surely this has been one the most scenic flights I had ever done, something I wish I will be able to experience again. Maybe being a bit more prepared about the weather along the route next time, but this little forgetfulness contributed to make this Saturday a whole lot more exciting.