Last week I found myself cruising over the Smoky Mountains at the minimum en route altitude. At first, I was unhappy with air traffic control for only allowing me to fly at this lower altitude. I did not want to deal with unnecessary bumps, poor visibility, or stress. However while flying at nine thousand feet, I was able to take in the stunning colors, valleys, and peaks of the gigantic geographic feature.
I had flown over it before, but with a couple more thousand feet between my aircraft and the mountains. The difference in flight enjoyment was huge, and it had me pondering the differences between flying low and flying high in general. I have been on airliners before, and remember vividly the sights from cruising up in the flight levels.
The greatest advantage to flying higher is the performance. Winds in the higher altitudes are much stronger than down low, and much more uniform due to the absence of surface friction. Conditions up higher are also often times much more favorable. It is very rare that clouds and weather systems reach up that high, resulting in a flight outside of instrument conditions with good visibility, and glassy smooth air. Less problems from icing, bumpiness and visibility arise whilst flying at these altitudes, which is a significant pro.
However, flying at higher altitudes has drawbacks. The crew or pilot must plan out and think of their flight a little more. Descending from 30,000′ does not happen in a matter of minutes, it has to be thought about prior to reaching the destination. Also, the enjoyment of the scenery can be a little less enjoyable. I have had many more experiences such as the Smokies where I was immensely grateful of the ability to take in beautiful details of the ground. At higher altitudes, many features are ant sized or minuscule and somewhat takes away the awe of flight.
Flying at lower altitudes also has drawbacks. Often times, pilots have to deal with turbulence, cloud layers, and obstacle clearances which can be a pain. They are also more susceptible to traffic collisions, as much private and amateur flight happens at these altitudes. However, I believe these are outweighed by the adventure involved with lower altitude flight. Flying visually and interacting with the terrain of the earth is a fantastic aspect of being a pilot. Seeing the shapes of states and geographical features, the roundness of the earth, and finite details of cities and their landmarks are just too incredible to pass up for a safer, more efficient ride in my opinion.
I am not denying that I will still enjoy or employ flight in the flight levels in the future, but I will always treasure flying lower and simply having fun.
Did I leave anything out? Which would you prefer if aircraft performance was not an issue? Drop a comment and share your opinion. Thanks for reading!