Passes through mountainous areas may soon be safer, thanks to an AOPA initiative for VFR waypoints marking mountain pass routes on aeronautical charts. AOPA has been pushing for such waypoints for several years.
The waypoints, which can be identified by Global Positioning System receivers and will be included in aviation GPS databases, are expected to begin appearing on selected sectional charts in the first half of 2002. They will indicate the beginning and ends of mountain pass routes and will be marked for VFR use only.
Similar VFR waypoints now appearing on terminal area VFR charts are helping pilots navigate accurately in congested airspace. The waypoints, identified with five-letter names beginning with "VP," were first approved for terminal charts in July 1999 after an AOPA-led task force pointed out the benefits to both pilots and air traffic controllers. The mountain pass waypoints are an extension of the terminal waypoint concept.
Identification of the correct mountain pass route can be critical, especially for pilots flying lower powered, non-turbocharged piston aircraft in mountainous areas. High density altitude conditions (more likely in summer) can make it impossible for a non-turbocharged aircraft to climb above peaks or high ridgelines if the route selected turns out to be a blind canyon or has rapidly rising terrain.
Misidentification of a mountain pass route is common, particularly for pilots new to a mountainous area. AOPA Director of Advanced Technology Randy Kenagy, an experienced mountain pilot and flight instructor who has been leading the VFR waypoint charting initiative for AOPA, pointed out that picking the correct pass while in flight isn't always easy.
"There probably isn't a mountain flyer who hasn't at least once squinted through the summer haze and picked the wrong entry point for a mountain pass route," said Kenagy. "Fortunately, there's usually enough room to make a lifesaving 180-degree turn before it's too late, but adding these VFR waypoints marking the proper entry point adds a margin of safety that pilots and their passengers will much appreciate."
The first new VFR mountain pass waypoints will be assigned to selected routes in mountainous areas of Alaska and Colorado, and pilots will be asked to help evaluate the benefits. If feedback from pilots is positive as expected, AOPA will request additional VFR mountain pass waypoints.
Along with the new VFR mountain pass waypoints, the FAA will increase the amount of information available to pilots on mountain flying techniques. Kenagy added that the information would be tailored to an individual location, enhancing safety. "For instance, mountain flying issues specific to Colorado may be published in the FAA Airport/Facility Directory that covers Colorado," Kenagy said. "The FAA plans to make additional information on mountain flying techniques available for easy download from the Internet."
But mountain flying information and expertise is already available on the Internet for AOPA members. The 57-page AOPA Guide to Mountain Flying that includes facts and opinions from experienced mountain pilots on basic mountain flying, use of supplemental oxygen, coping with weather in mountainous terrain, and survival techniques is on the AOPA Web site.
The 370,000-member Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association is the world's largest civil aviation organization. More than one half of the nation's pilots and three quarters of the aircraft owners are AOPA members.