Terrain Tactics

Hard Knocks

November 1, 2004

There's no reasoning with terrain

I spent the majority of my early flying years in Southern California. Except for about eight billion airplanes, the flying was pretty simple. The weather was usually great and if anything ever went wrong, there was nearly always a golf course, beach, or cement riverbed to land in. Takeoff and descent planning was easy. Density altitude was rarely a problem and landing meant descending until the little altimeter showed around noon and then flaring.

Then one day I started flying to other places and found that there was more to life than great weather, beaches, and cement riverbeds. These were unfamiliar places with bad weather where people threw around unfamiliar terms such as terrain and density altitude — which to me meant that intelligence and altitude were inversely proportional. On top of that, the ground kept moving — to the left, to the right, up, down, all over the place — and now it was called terrain. I just couldn't count on the ground being at sea level anymore. Every time I wanted to land I had to do math to figure out how high I was above the ground — nobody said anything about doing math. And that was just the beginning.

Accidents that didn't happen

My first trip to the Sun Valley, Idaho, area was, as fortune would have it, at night. The Friedman Memorial Airport in Hailey, the primary airport for the Sun Valley ski area, was sort of in a box canyon (aren't they all?) and we were just driving along westbound, looking for the right box canyon. We finally saw the beacon and turned about a 10-mile final. After a minute or two, we started wondering about the abnormally high amount of traffic on the runway. I started looking around a little and noticed another runway off to the left of the one we were lined up on that had a whole lot less traffic on it. Turns out we had been on a five-mile final to Idaho State Highway 75, which just happens to be a few hundred feet to the right of Runway 31 at Hailey. Landing on a state highway can be entertaining, but generally the FAA, your insurance company, and the local police take a dim view of it. More likely a few more miles and we would've ended up doing a rejected landing — which normally is not a big deal. However, at a place like Hailey, it can be bad if not given any thought. We all make plans for missed approaches (which in mountainous terrain are often begun far short of the runway), but are we making plans for rejected landings? You know, when you're right over the numbers, realize the snow plow is still on the runway, and have to go around, blinded by the runway lights and often turning toward unfamiliar and virtually invisible terrain. Being behind the airplane in the mountains without a plan is not a good place to be.

If it's in the book, it must be right

It isn't always about getting on the ground; sometimes it's about getting off the ground — and staying off the ground. Where do you go when you have performance questions? Me, I go to the pilot's operating handbook supplied by the manufacturer. I look up the temperature, altitude, weight, wind, and a variety of other things to determine how much runway I need for takeoff and then add a fudge factor to that to get a number I'm comfortable with. It's all good.

At least that's what I thought. I had borrowed a Piper Cherokee for a few days to show some friends and their newborn daughter Kaitlyn around northern Arizona. My friends were teachers, fresh out of school, contemplating places to make a permanent home, and Kaitlyn was already a grizzled veteran with several flights and under-wing diaper changes in her logbook. Ready to launch back to Orange County, California, one fine afternoon, I spent some time at the FBO in Flagstaff poring over the various 1970s-era performance charts and trying to make sense of them. According to the charts, even considering density altitude (a little above 9,000 feet msl), we were good to go with room to spare. I even told myself that if I wasn't off the runway with at least 3,000 feet remaining we would abort for dinner (if you're going to abort, dinner is always a great reason).

We got off the ground with no problem and voluntarily remained in ground effect for a while to get some speed. And ground effect was right where we stayed. Unfortunately, ground effect had absolutely no concern for the trees at the end of the runway. To solve our immediate problem, we traded some speed for altitude — which took care of the trees. However, any attempt to raise the nose and climb beyond said trees was met with the stall warning horn. At a measly 100-fpm climb, the molehill off our right wing was quickly turning into a mountain, so we ditched our original right turnout plan in favor of a left two-seventy over lower terrain. After several left turns, we found ourselves headed toward the correct ocean with a newfound respect for the effects of density altitude and a little less respect for aircraft performance charts.

What I learned that day became obvious after I'd gained more experience. Performance charts in many cases are for perfect airplanes flown by perfect pilots. This was not a perfect airplane and I was by no means a perfect pilot. Plus, I was only thinking about getting off the runway, not about climb performance after takeoff (of which I didn't have much). It's something that's hard to teach, but easy to experience and impossible to forget. In both these cases I was lucky and learned something in the process. Unfortunately, luck is not always in abundant supply.

Accidents that did happen

Ever notice how accidents generally involve running into something? We usually assume it's flying or descending into something, but in mountainous terrain it often involves "climbing" into something. In absolute terms, if the vertical distance between the ground and you is getting smaller, you're descending. You could be climbing at 1,500 fpm, but if the terrain is climbing at 2,000 fpm, you're descending relative to the terrain.


Just after noon, one fine, clear fall day, a Cessna 172R hit rising terrain during climb about 20 miles and 20 minutes after departing Aspen, Colorado. The airplane was one pound below max takeoff weight and attempting to get through Independence Pass at an altitude of 11,948 feet msl. That sounds OK until you realize the pass is at 12,095 feet msl. They were that close — another 150 feet and they would have made it. Density altitude at the accident site was calculated to be 14,100 feet msl. In retrospect, I don't know too many people who would operate a Cessna 172 at full gross at midday with density altitudes like that in the middle of the Rockies. Unfortunately, there are three fewer now.

Déjà vu

The next victim departed Aspen in a Piper Cherokee Six headed toward the same Independence Pass. He said that when he climbed above 11,000 feet msl, "the airplane really got mushy" and he believed he was not going to make it over the pass. His solution was unique and probably saved his life — he landed straight ahead on rising terrain. Without the benefit of a runway the airplane impacted a sign and subsequently shed the wings, engine, and landing gear, becoming a lawn dart in the process, but at least no lives were lost. Me, I keep wondering what the sign that he ran into said. I know what it says now: "Used Cherokee parts — cheap."

What is scary is that both of these accidents occurred during day visual meteorological conditions, so the pilots had the terrain in sight the whole time — it wasn't a surprise. What's even scarier is that these two accidents occurred two months apart within sight of each other. Don't they say that the Chinese definition of insanity is doing the same thing twice and expecting a different result? You would think that it would be in the second pilot's mind that "whatever gets me, it won't be the terrain" and the walls of the flight planning room at the Aspen FBO would be covered with charts and graphs and pictures. No such luck. Local pilots take Hagerman Pass instead of Independence when going eastbound from Aspen. Following the Roaring Fork Visual inbound is also a wiser plan.

Déjà vu, again

Aspen may not be the center of all evil when it comes to aviation mishaps, but you can certainly see it from there. The Gulfstream III that crashed on approach to Aspen in March 2001 is indicative of the "it can happen to anyone" philosophy and has received much press (see " Proficient Pilot: Visual Contact," June 2001 Pilot). It is a story of a flight crew feeling the get-there-or-else pressure that many of us often feel ourselves. Sometimes the pressure is brought on by our own personal desire to get there — in this case it was passenger initiated and professionally induced.

The Gulfstream flight crew was very experienced, but this experience apparently was no match for the pressure of worsening weather, impending darkness, and a rude, overbearing (now dead) client. In this case, the life-or-death reason for being in Aspen was dinner. Having flown more than my fair share of business jet trips into Aspen with demanding passengers I can tell you that this is no small pressure. No pilot enjoys disembarking his passengers late or at someplace other than their intended destination. You can add management and financial pressure as well. A charter like that is tens of thousands of dollars, and often your future ability to get business from a particular charter broker or client is based on your ability to get the job done and satisfy the impossible client. Clients remember when they miss dinner, so the pressure is always there to perform. In fact, we could write an entire book on the impossible client, but we'll save that for another day.

Aspen is served by a nonprecision approach with high minimums and a missed approach that involves flying out a localizer back course (there is no front course). Personally, I'm never excited when my path to safety in the mountains includes the words back course. In addition, if you haven't flown the approach before and your plan is to slow down during the approach and land straight in from the missed approach point you've already guaranteed a missed approach. So unless you are legal to circle (not exactly a popular maneuver in the narrow Roaring Fork Valley) you're outta there. It's a favorite approach to go over during a Part 135 oral, and frankly, gets a good many pilots turned around.

That all being said, I am not the smartest guy around, but I can tell you unequivocally that I never would have gone in there in the Gulfstream that night. There are times when it's OK to be a pioneer, but not in an airplane at night in the snow on approach to Aspen. Usually I welcome the chance to test my skills with a potential missed approach in low weather, but not at Aspen. On this night, several aircraft ahead of the Gulfstream had gone missed and it was getting dark, which for the most part meant that the airport was closed. Generally, if everyone in front of you is going missed at Aspen, you should find out what brew pub they are going to in Rifle or Grand Junction, Colorado, and meet them there.

But they didn't do that. When I read about this accident, the thing that screamed out at me is the fact that they were still looking for the airport when they were well below the MDA. Yes, they kept on descending without the airport in sight. They were more than 2,000 feet below the minimum descent altitude, looking for the airport. There are some stories where you can empathize with the pilots involved, and there are some where in the cold light of day it's tough to imagine exactly what was going on. I mean, everybody has their line in the sand, or in this case, snow. Now, I don't know where your line is, but mine comes way before looking for a runway in the snow. The only way I am looking for a runway, near the rocks, in the snow would have to involve a small country airport, lots of alcohol, and a toboggan gone way wrong.

Flight planners carrying gifts

As we saw at Aspen, getting from point A to point B involves more than just taking off and landing without incident. Don't fall into the trap of "it's on the flight plan, it must be safe." Be completely wary of flight-planning programs or people who flight plan for you. In my last job, people flight planned for me and it was very cool — most of the time.

One winter day in Aspen our intrepid flight planners filed us to Gunnison at 10,000 feet msl. They must have assumed that since it was such a short flight, there was no reason to go any higher. Never mind that 10,000 feet msl is just a little more than 2,000 feet agl at Aspen. Sitting in a big room in the Midwest with no mountains for hundreds of miles, the thought of terrain must not have occurred to them. In all fairness, the company had just begun doing flight planning and clearly hadn't gotten all the kinks worked out. We used our people skills and called the mother ship to tell them the only way we could go at 10,000 feet msl was through a tunnel, and that most likely we would have to dig it first. They didn't think that was very funny and refiled us at a higher altitude. I actually didn't think it was all that funny either and never took another flight plan anywhere at face value again. It doesn't do any good after you've face-planted into some granite to realize that you should have checked the flight plan to see if it was granite-free.

Flying into a mountainous airport is often not much different from flying into any airport. It's just that your margin for error is lower and risk of error is higher. Terrain is absolute. It's like the Terminator — there's no arguing with it and no reasoning with it.

And while the things we've talked about happened at mountainous airports, they involve fundamental mistakes that could happen anywhere with varying results. Optimistically calculating aircraft performance, misidentifying an airport...we've all done it. The only difference is that with terrain thrown in there is a little less chance that you can charm your way out of whatever you did.

Many times we have to learn these things for ourselves. Usually we learn through other people's close calls that end up as "Never Again" columns, but sometimes we learn by ending up someplace we wish we'd never gone. For every "Never Again" that gets published there are thousands that are never shared.

We all have our own "sea level" — it's what we're used to. But when we fly someplace unfamiliar we sometimes put ourselves at risk because we don't know the lay of the land (see " Safety Pilot: Going to Jackson," page 48). Give yourself the best chance of success and get all the information and local knowledge you can. Have a plan before you start out or start down. Call ahead to the FBO, airport office, flight service station, or talk to other pilots who have been there before. Don't be afraid to look online at accident reports of those who have gone before you. Jeppesen even prints special "Airport Qualification" pages for many airports it considers out of the ordinary. Learn from history, lest you become a part of it.

Marc K. Henegar, AOPA 1073441, of Bend, Oregon, is a pilot for Alaska Airlines.