Answers for Pilots

Terrain Tactics: The air up there

November 1, 2004

Mountain flying is special

Mountain flying can be some of the most rewarding and beautiful flying a pilot will ever experience. Unfortunately, it also can be one of the most dangerous.Like many Florida pilots, I never learned proper mountain techniques during initial training. After all, when the tallest point in the state is often joked to be Epcot, knowledge of mountain flying is not particularly necessary or useful — as long as you don't leave the flatlands. In fact, most pilots only learn one important mountain-flying principle in their initial training — density altitude.

Although density altitude is a key concept in mountain flying, there are many other considerations a pilot must take to remain safe, not the least of which is wind. This point became evident to me on a recent trip flying around Denali in Alaska where my instructor was able to keep us safe from downdrafts, simply by coaching me on which side of a pass to fly through. In addition to weather and density altitude, all pilots should consider the following before venturing into mountainous areas.

  • Take a mountain-flying course. Mountain-flying courses are as varied as the instructors who teach them, but most cover a minimum of weather considerations, preflight planning, density altitude, and survival techniques.
  • Seek the advice of locals. This should be done regardless of how experienced a pilot is in mountain flying. Because each mountain locale exhibits different characteristics, seeking local advice from experienced pilots is an easy way to get quick, useful tips.
  • Always have an out. Although this rule of thumb applies to almost everything in aviation, nowhere is it more important than mountain flying.

(For more stories on mountain flying in this issue, see " Safety Pilot: Going to Jackson," page 48, " Hard Knocks," page 97, and " On Display: Steering Clear," page 147.)

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AOPA Web resources

AOPA's A Pilot's Guide to Mountain Flying booklet compiled by AOPA's aviation technical specialists.

Ian J. Twombly

Ian J. Twombly | "Flight Training" Editor

AOPA Pilot and Flight Training Editor Ian J. Twombly joined AOPA in 2003 and is an instrument flight instructor.