Do you want to fly above snow-capped mountains, journey through narrow canyons and land at airports that have some of the most spectacular scenery in the world? If you haven't experienced this, you are in for a thrill. However, you will also be faced with greater challenges and different procedures.
This subject report contains links to an assortment of articles written by pilots with years of mountain flying experience. Their knowledge and wisdom is conveyed in an entertaining and educational style.
Topics covered include: Weather, density altitude, mountain waves and cloud types, flight operations from preflight to landing, communication, western mountain routes, and survival skills and equipment.
BY KEVIN D. MURPHY
Mountain flyers sometimes refer to pilots from the eastern part of the country as "flatlanders." It's a common term in the Western aviation community, just a description of a pilot who hasn't yet thrilled to touching down while the altimeter still reads 7,000 or 8,000 feet. Occasionally the word is used more pejoratively, such as at the crash site of a pilot who didn't believe a mountain flying checkout was necessary.
I confess: I used to be a flatlander, but was fortunate enough to be able to add mountain flying to my aeronautical resume. For several years after that, my full-time job was encouraging aviation safety among general aviation pilots in New Mexico, where elevations range from the (relatively) low but scorching hot 3,000-foot deserts to snow-capped mountain peaks of over 13,000 feet.
I taught safety seminars as a volunteer in the FAA's accident prevention program (now Aviation Safety Program), counseled as an FAA Accident Prevention Counselor with pilots about to make hideous mistakes and wrote aviation safety articles for several national aviation magazines. And I flew many of the very best hours of my 25-year life as a pilot.
Mountain flying is different, but rewarding beyond any measure. In this four-part series, I'll pass along some of the strange and wonderful experiences of a flatlander learning mountain flying. Emphasis will be on the most common mistakes that cause accidents. Along the way, I'll offer maxims of mountain flying wisdom in little nuggets called Observations of a Former Flatlander (OFF).
This series is meant primarily for general aviation pilots flying light single engine airplanes without turbo chargers, although the information will be useful for pilots of nearly any type of aircraft. Most of the information will be valid for any type of mountain flying, whether in the (relatively) low Appalachians of the East or the much higher and more jagged Rockies of the West. Because of the higher and more jagged nature of Western terrain, examples are mostly placed in that area.
Before we start, one caution. Do not, under any circumstances, try flight in high density altitudes or mountainous areas without a thorough checkout from an experienced mountain pilot. To do otherwise invites the label "stupid pilot tricks", and Western landscapes are already littered with aluminum carcasses put there by pilots who discover in the last minute of their lives that reading about some aspect of mountain flying - say, density altitude - is not at all the same as experiencing it. The consciousness-raising that occurred in their last minutes could not have been pleasant.
Once you've had a thorough checkout, wade in slowly. Lessons learned slowly are those learned best.
When I was a student pilot in the late 1960's, learning at an East Coast airport 186 feet above sea level, the instructor kept admonishing me to keep my right hand pushing the throttle full forward during takeoff and climb.
"How else can you be sure you're getting full power?" he would scream over the roar of the engine.
At lower-elevation airports, pedal-to-the-metal is a reasonably complete explanation of how to ensure full power. For mountain flying, it's only the start of the explanation, which goes on to include the effects of thin air in two places: just outside the cockpit and between the pilots ears.
If there is any one basic reason why flatlanders come to grief on vertical terrain, it is lack of a true understanding of how the thin air of higher elevations - defined as a high density altitude - causes aircraft performance to wither.
Oh, sure, ground school instructors always cover density altitude, usually while tracing lines on performance charts. "And notice the extra 50 feet of runway required for takeoff when the temperature rises by 20 degrees in this example," the instructor will say, stifling a yawn. "Of course this Federal Aviation Administration chart you will see again in the exam booklet makes it awfully hard to calculate exact numbers."
So the neophyte pilot dutifully traces lines on the takeoff or climb performance chart. If the number looks halfway reasonable, it will be entered as another pencil mark or computer keystroke on the way to a glorious 70% or better on the FAA written examination.
So what exactly is density altitude? Technically, density altitude is pressure altitude corrected for non-standard temperature and humidity.
In mountainous areas, density altitude is more than an idle concept and is frequently the subject of pilot conversations. Remember the ground school mnemonic "high, hot and humid?" Those conditions create a high density altitude, meaning thinner air and decreased aircraft performance.
"High" refers to elevation or altitude. Almost every pilot knows that the atmosphere gets thinner as the houses get smaller, but mountain pilots get to experience the most serious effects of thin air on takeoff and landing more often than lowland pilots.
"Hot" is temperature, with higher temperatures making the air thinner. Elevation and temperature are the two biggest factors in determining density altitude. Some high elevation airports have large thermometers displayed just outside the FBO office, with density altitudes marked next to temperatures. As the temperature climbs, so does the density altitude.
"Humid" has the least impact on density altitude, and is usually ignored in all but the most precise calculations. Humidity increases density altitude (makes the air thinner) because saturated air actually weighs only about 5/8 as much as dry air. Think of the chemical formula for water: H 2O. Two molecules of lighter-than-air hydrogen and only one of oxygen allow humidity to "lighten up" the surrounding air. Humidity also causes a slight decrease in engine performance.
Thinner air (high density altitude) means an aircraft will have a longer takeoff run, a slightly longer landing run and a lower rate of climb. In short, if you think your airplane doesn't have enough power while operating near sea level, you'll really be unhappy with the performance at higher altitude airports!
High density altitude outside the cockpit is relatively easy to understand and appreciate. High density altitude between a pilot's ears, however, is quite another matter and is the root cause of about 80% of mountain flying accidents. For most beginning mountain pilots, the first flight in true high density altitude conditions is a revelation.
One hot summer day, I rolled onto the end of the 10,000 foot runway 17 at Albuquerque International Airport in a fully loaded Cessna 172 and pushed the throttle forward. Although Albuquerque is only a little over 5,000 feet above sea level, the blistering summer heat that afternoon pushed the density altitude at the airport close to 9,000 feet.
In the right front seat was a friend of mine — a private pilot from near sea level on his first visit to the West - who had assured me he had studied carefully the effects of density altitude. At first he marveled at the lack of the usual "whiplash" caused by rapid acceleration. But as a couple thousand feet of runway 17 ambled by, he turned to me with concern and said, "ummmm, are you sure this airplane is going to fly?"
My private pilot friend had done all the ground school computations, read the proper books, but had never actually FELT such a sluggish, prolonged takeoff run in a Cessna 172. We finally staggered off the runway and leveled off in ground effect. As we continued to float toward the end of the runway, his eyes were big as inspection plates.
"This is normal," I reassured him. I thought a little humor would put him at ease. "We're just waiting for a thermal so we can climb." Ooops! Humor isn't always well-taken by beginning mountain pilots who are seeing the effects of high density altitude for the first time. My friend was doing a quick mental review of his will.
Especially in the desert southwest, summertime thermals really do help in gaining altitude after takeoff. It's just that — most of the time — they're not essential to continued flight, and if they are, you're probably doing something wrong. Which leads us to Observations of a Former Flatlander (OFF) number 1:
OFF #1: Summertime thermals are a wonderful bonus, but don't count on them in your pre-takeoff planning.
Airspeed is Airspeed the World Over, as Long as It's Indicated!
Another part of ground school often forgotten quickly after the written examination or the private pilot checkride is the difference between indicated airspeed, calibrated airspeed, true airspeed and ground speed. Don't worry — your first takeoff in high density altitude conditions will remind you of the difference.
"Indicated airspeed" is the "raw" value you see on the face of the airspeed indicator. It's nothing more than a measurement of how many slugs of air have been packed into the small opening in the pitot tube, compared with air pressure felt by the static port on the side of the fuselage, and translated into miles per hour or knots.
"Calibrated airspeed", found by checking a chart in the aircraft owners manual, takes into account the position of the pitot tube and other variables that cause inaccuracies. In most aircraft, the difference between calibrated airspeed and indicated airspeed will be least around normal cruise speeds.
"True airspeed" is calibrated airspeed corrected for non-standard temperature and pressure. Most pilots doing regular cross countries enjoy seeing the spread between calibrated (or indicated) and true airspeed increasing as they gain altitude.
"Groundspeed" is true airspeed plus or minus the effects of headwinds or tailwinds.
These differences become obvious on your first takeoff at a high density altitude. At lower elevations, true airspeed (and ground speed, assuming no wind) isn't much different from indicated airspeed. After a few hundred takeoffs, most pilots develop a "feel" for how fast the runway lights must whiz by before hauling back on the yoke, and reliance on indicated airspeed wanes.
But at high density altitudes, true airspeed is greater than indicated airspeed, and runway lights must whiz by at a greater rate for the same indicated airspeed. The result is something mountain instructors have come to expect: pilots trying their first high-altitude takeoff sometimes try to pull the airplane off the runway too early because the speed of passing scenery "looks right" for liftoff. During the summer at some of the highest mountain airports, the difference can be as much as 20%.
Relying on indicated airspeed is the answer to this problem. For takeoff, landing or maneuvering, the same indicated airspeeds will work just as well at sea level as they do at 12,000 feet density altitude. If you normally use 70 knots indicated as an approach airspeed at low elevation airports, that same 70 knots indicated will work just as well at Leadville, Colorado, elevation 9927' MSL. Of course your true airspeed — and ground speed, assuming no wind — will be higher, for considerably lengthened takeoff and landing rolls.
OFF #2: Use the same indicated airspeeds for takeoff and landing as you did at low elevation airports, and don't let yourself be thrown off by the speed of the passing scenery.
Off and Climbing — Or, Not All Airports Are Created Equal
Not long after liftoff, another important lesson about density altitude will become obvious. This is sometimes referred to as the "ohmygosh, we're not going to make it over trees, are we?" lesson. Rate of climb suffers horribly as the elevation and temperature rise.
Runways in higher terrain are usually longer than those in lower terrain, giving novice mountain pilots a false sense of complacency. Tall trees or other obstructions may LOOK far enough away, but the abysmal rate of climb of most light airplanes in high density altitude conditions makes the obstructions much closer than you think. Frighteningly close, in some cases.
Pull out the performance charts for the airplane you normally fly and note the dramatic decrease in rates of climb as the elevations and temperatures get higher. In all your low-elevation experience, such a decrease in rate of climb would naturally make you exercise caution. But consider this: rate of climb is expressed in feet per minute, and at high density altitudes you're covering more ground each minute than you did at lower elevations. The effects are cumulative.
Increased takeoff rolls and decreased rates of climb aren't the only considerations in planning takeoffs in mountainous areas. At some mountain airports, there are sloping runways, deceiving terrain and official or unofficial departure procedures.
Since planners don't usually have the luxury of large expanses of flat land, sloping runways are quite common in mountainous areas. Not many runways slope more than a couple percent, although a slope of slightly less than one percent is enough to earn a special mention in the FAA Airport Facility Directory and some other airport directories. All other things being equal, it's best to take off downhill and land uphill, letting gravity help counteract high density altitudes.
But other than a mention of slope in an airport directory, how would a pilot know about balancing wind velocity with the slope of a runway? Like so much other education about mountain flying, the answer is to ask the local pilots. Not only do they know, but they'll be absolutely ecstatic that you asked. If there are no local pilots to ask, add about 10 percent to your takeoff distance per degree of up slope; if the slope is more than about two degrees, seriously consider taking off down slope. A down slope takeoff shortens your roll by about 5 percent per degree of down slope.
You'd think that airport management at such airports would be anxious to publish such information in airport directories, but that isn't always the case. Liability concerns are usually to blame for the lack of an entry. As one county manager told me, "so we tell them to land uphill regardless of the wind, and then somebody wrecks his airplane and sues us. We don't have that much money."
There are a few, mostly private, mountain strips where the direction of landing is obvious. One that sticks in my mind is Silver City, New Mexico, near the Gila Wilderness, where the short dirt strip of a private airport there slants almost 10 degrees. One look is enough to convince any pilot that trying to land downhill on that strip would be a serious mistake. Oh, and by the way, that strip is fewer than 2,000 feet long!
For landings on sloping runways, one bit of caution: landing uphill is normally desirable, but an approach to an uphill runway causes an optical illusion of being too high on the approach.
Many mountain strips used by the U.S. Forest Service or other federal agencies not only slope but are also irregularly maintained, and soft field takeoff techniques are frequently required. Adding some flap prior to takeoff increases the lift and reduces the beating taken by the landing gear and other parts of the airplane, and pilot operating manuals for airplanes built in recent years usually specify a flap setting for best soft field performance. If your airplane didn't come with such a recommendation, you can approximate the proper amount of flap by moving the one aileron to full down deflection with your stick or yoke and then matching the flap to that deflection. This provides maximum lift from a particular airfoil design without inducing excessive drag.
Short back-country strips of tall grass, sand, gravel or soft turf can also cause considerable consternation because take-off distances are usually calculated for hard-surfaced, level runways. A conservative rule of thumb uses the halfway point of the runway as a reference: if you haven't reached about 70% of the needed liftoff speed by the halfway point, abort.
Deceiving terrain is also quite common surrounding mountain airports. At one of my favorite mountain resorts the runway is nearly 8,400 feet above sea level, oriented north and south and slopes slightly downhill to the south. The terrain going south beyond the end of the runway doesn't look like much more than a very small hill, but appearances are deceiving, and more than one pilot has found that the hill is higher than it appears. Especially in the summer, the airport attracts a large number of pilots.
There have been several accidents at this particular mountain airport, despite an exceptionally well-maintained wide runway that is about 9,000 feet long and in a wide valley. After one particularly heart-rending accident where a pilot took off to the south and wasn't able to out climb the hill and the airplane burst into flames, consuming one of the passengers, the county agreed to post signs advising pilots that there was "rapidly rising terrain to the south."
In addition to the signs, a line person from the FBO rushes out to greet each incoming airplane with a sheet of paper that thoroughly explains why high density altitudes deserve serious consideration. The last time I stopped in, the line person had the explanation sheet in my hand before I'd even stepped out of the airplane.
Departure procedures are also common in mountainous areas, but many flatland pilots aren't aware of them. They come in two flavors: VFR and IFR.
Most VFR departure procedures in mountainous terrain are "unofficial", but no less important than their "official" IFR cousins. Departure procedures are nearly always established to help pilots avoid those "are we gonna make it?" blues that accompany rapidly rising terrain. Unfortunately, the only way to find out about most local VFR departure procedures is to ask local pilots or check the FBO.
VFR departure procedures are usually easy to understand and follow. For the resort airport where county commissioners posted the "rapidly rising terrain" signs, the VFR departure procedure calls for a departure to the north (slightly uphill), then proceeding straight ahead just a short distance to a lake, then circling the lake while climbing high enough to clear mountains that stand between a pilot and his or her destination.
IFR departure procedures are also not well understood, even by some instrument-rated pilots who normally operate in lower, flatter terrain. Some think a departure procedure from a mountain airport means a Standard Instrument Departure (SID), and will search their approach charts frantically for a copy of that procedure.
No, an IFR departure procedure is not a SID. If an airport has either non-standard takeoff minimums or an IFR departure procedure, a small "T" in a dark inverted triangle will appear in the "notes" section of NOS instrument approach charts for that airport. The note refers to a listing at the beginning of that approach chart booklet, where the departure procedure can be found. Most IFR departure procedures are nearly as straightforward as the VFR "unofficial" procedures. Often the procedure is as simple as proceeding to a beacon (frequently a non-directional beacon or a marker beacon on an instrument approach) and climbing in a holding pattern until reaching a minimum altitude, then turning on course.
At airports with good radar coverage, radar vectors may substitute for the departure procedure, although wise pilots have the non-radar procedure well in mind. Taking off from high elevation airports and climbing at an excruciatingly slow rate brings to life ground school lessons on best angle of climb and best rate of climb (Vx and Vy, respectively) speeds. At the outer edge, knowing and holding Vy may make the difference between climbing and not climbing.
Also often forgotten is that the best rate of climb speed decreases as the density altitude increases. Eventually, the best rate of climb speed meets the best angle of climb speed. In fact, that's one of the special burdens of a mountain checkout: knowing the different Vy speeds for different altitudes.
In many cases, mountain flying means operating near the limits of an airplane's performance. When flying IFR on airways, for instance, the minimum altitudes necessary to avoid higher peaks are frequently above 9,000 or 10,000 feet and go to well above oxygen altitudes along some routes. There's not a whole lot of climb performance left in the average non-turbocharged light single-engine airplane when trying to maintain a minimum enroute altitude of 12,000 feet. All it takes to make one ineligible for further participation in the system is a slight downdraft.
When operating that closely to an airplane's performance limits, wise pilots pay special attention to upward changes in minimum enroute altitudes or minimum crossing altitudes. With the dismal rates of climb available at those altitudes, more than the usual prior planning is necessary for pilots who want to reach the new altitudes without saying, "ooops." One rule of thumb used by many mountain pilots when planning IFR flights is to keep a minimum climb performance of 300 feet per minute.
OFF #3: Ask the locals. They don't want your airplane blocking their runway, either.
Weight and Balance
There's a theory that gravity is slightly less at high elevations, making an entire airplane and contents weigh less, thus allowing a pilot to cram more stuff on board and still remain legal. Is that true? I don't know.
But for flight at high density altitudes, it doesn't matter. Light aircraft in high density altitude conditions are routinely operated well under manufacturer's gross weight, in part to maintain a reasonable level of performance. Especially when temperatures soar, keeping the weight down may be the only way to complete a trip in mountain country safely.
Not all pilots visiting high country for the first time understand the difference between manufacturer's gross weight and a realistic operational gross weight. I saw a good example of that one hot summer day at a busy general aviation airport that is located just shy of one mile high — 5,270 feet above sea level. The blazing sun was pushing mercury in thermometers to near 100 degrees and the blacktop of the 4,000 foot runway could have made a stovetop. We were sitting on park benches just outside the FBO office, enjoying the shade and light breeze and grading takeoffs and landings.
In came a Beech Bonanza, sizzling down final approach. As we watched, it flew past the approach end of the runway at about 50 feet, touched on all three wheels at about the halfway point on the runway and barely screeched to a halt just short of the runway end. We could see every seat in that six-seat airplane filled as it taxied in.
The airplane pulled up to the ramp in front of the office. The door opened and a rather large woman climbed out, stepping cautiously down the walkway on the right wing. Then the pilot emerged, and it was obvious he hadn't missed many meals either. We could see four adults filling the rear seats, and the small baggage compartment at the rear was also stuffed.
"Lineboy!" yelled the pilot, standing on the wing, just outside the door of the Bonanza. Sweat was pouring down his forehead. "Top everything! We gotta get going!" There were two of us sitting on that park bench in the shade, and we quickly flipped a coin to see who would counsel with this pilot.
"Sir, before you add 400 or more pounds of gas to that airplane, could we talk about your chances of getting off this runway and avoiding those trees at the south end?" I waved at the rather sturdy stand of 50-foot trees that stood just a couple hundred feet from the departure end of the runway. The fact that they provide shade for a nearly-full cemetery has always been an effective selling point for pilots who weren't otherwise willing to listen.
As we suspected, this was the pilot's first trip into high density altitude country, and he was determined to make it further west - Phoenix, I think - before the sun set for the day. Density altitude was not on his mind. We sat in the comfortable lobby of the FBO with weight and balance charts and performance figures for his airplane, and it didn't take long for him see the light. Or perhaps he felt the heat.
"I probably wouldn't have made it, would I?" he asked, new respect in his voice. "I've never questioned before whether 4,000 feet of runway was enough, even with tall trees at one end."
At the end of our short ground school session, the pilot had decided to take on a smaller fuel load, plan an intermediate fuel stop and stay overnight to take advantage of lower temperatures early in the morning. It was a wise decision.
In truth, 4,000 feet of runway really can be marginal, especially on hot days and with full loads and especially if obstructions bar one end of the runway. Even longer runways can be marginal, like the 4,800-foot runway at Leadville, Colorado, the highest airport in North America.
On hot summer days, density altitude can soar to 13,000 feet at Leadville. For obvious reasons, you don't see very many Cessna 152s or Piper Tomahawks at high-altitude airports like Leadville. A friend of mine used to instruct there several years ago, and at that time the lineup of airplanes based at Leadville included a Piper Cherokee 180, an old Cessna 182, a 160-HP Piper Tri-Pacer and a Piper Super Cub. The Tri-Pacer and the Cessna 182 were commonly used for instruction, although the Tri-Pacer was regarded as a two-place and limited fuel airplane.
Ramps at higher elevation airports tend to look a little different than those at lower airports, too, with beefier airplanes preferred. Where one might find an ocean of Cessna 172s at low elevation airports, Cessna 182s tend to predominate at higher elevation fields.
OFF #4: Gross weight for safe flight in high density altitudes often is less than what the pilot operating handbook claims.
Physiology and the Pilot
A couple years ago, I was teaching a private pilot ground school in the high country. We had slogged through basic aerodynamics, navigation, communications and powerplants, and had finally reached "effects of altitude on the body."
The need for supplemental oxygen was the subject at hand, and I drew a diagram on the blackboard showing the Federal Aviation Regulations requiring oxygen for the pilot after 30 minutes above 12,500 feet and up to 14,000 feet and all the time for the pilot above 14,000 feet cabin pressure altitude. So far, so good.
"But those are only the rules," I explained earnestly. "You may very well find oxygen useful at lower altitudes to avoid hypoxia, especially at night. In fact, the recommendation is for supplemental oxygen when flying above 10,000 feet during the day and above 5,000 feet at night."
A slow snicker started at the back of the room and spread towards the front. As a former flatlander, I hadn't recognized the basic flaw in this otherwise solid piece of ground school advice. Every student in that classroom, on the second floor of a large hangar at the international airport, was already at 5,400 feet MSL.
"So we should strap on an oxygen bottle to do the preflight?" suggested one student, barely containing himself. The whole class erupted in laughter.
It's true that much oxygen is bottled, sold and used in the high country. It's also true that pilots who live at higher elevations are slightly less susceptible to hypoxia, because their bodies have adapted. After about two months living at a higher altitude, hearts become capable of pumping larger amounts of oxygen-carrying blood, the blood cells themselves carrying oxygen increase in number and individuals may breath at a slightly faster rate. On the downside, that acclimatization is lost very shortly after return to a lower elevation.
Symptoms of hypoxia include either an increased sense of well-being (or sometimes a sense of feeling terrible), slowed reaction time, impaired reasoning, fatigue and headache, and decreased night vision.
The majority of mountain pilots don't use oxygen while flying below 12,500 feet during the day, all the best recommendations to the contrary. In part, their bodies have adapted to life at higher elevations.
But at night, oxygen use is another matter. Loss of night vision is one of the first symptoms of hypoxia, and it's tough enough to fly VFR at night without being able to see clearly. Mountain peaks don't have obstruction lights, and without a full moon it's virtually impossible to see high terrain. A large number of mountain pilots simply refuse to fly at night, and those who do prefer to stick to the lower-elevation routes marked by a prominent land feature. Personally, I always preferred Interstate highways, with their steady trail of white and red lights leading the way to (mostly)obstruction-free terrain.
OFF #5: Clean living pays off in reduced flying costs, since bottled aviator's oxygen costs money.
One basic element of mountain flying not mentioned in Part One of this series is mixture control. Just because the checklist for your non-turbocharged airplane reads, "mixture full rich for takeoff and landing" doesn't make it true in the high country!
As the density altitude climbs, the amount of oxygen getting to your engine decreases, requiring less fuel for smooth engine operation and the best possible power. At high elevation airports, and particularly during the summer when density altitudes soar, takeoff runs can be stretched mightily by an engine choking on too much fuel for the air available.
The same is true on landing. The pilot of a high performance twin was on short final one hot summer day at a high country airport when he suddenly remembered the checklist. "Mixtures full rich for landing," he read, and shoved both red knobs all the way forward.
"It was the funniest thing I'd ever seen," the airport manager told me later. "Both engines just kinda puffed a little black smoke, coughed a few times and quit." The pilot set his twin down safely.
Proper leaning varies with airplane type, but for non-turbocharged, fixed-pitch propeller airplanes the most common procedure is to run the engine up to full power and lean the mixture until maximum RPM is reached, then enrichen slightly. Naturally, check your pilot operating handbook for details for the particular aircraft you are flying.
Leaning for takeoff and landing doesn't apply to turbocharged aircraft, where a high-speed turbine is compressing the thin air so your engine is force-fed sea level (or more) pressure. Turbocharged engines must also be handled much more carefully than normally-aspirated engines to avoid damage from shock cooling or too-lean cruise operation. Should you find a turbocharged aircraft for rent in the high country, be prepared for a long and very thorough checkout.
OFF #6: A full rich mixture in high density altitudes is more than fuelish; it's dangerous.
Weather, and Where to Get It
Mountains make weather, but the paucity of population in many of those areas makes it tough to get an accurate picture of what you'll really face.
"Cross a ridge and you might go from good VFR to zero-zero," say gray-haired mountain pilots. "Weather changes from moment to moment. It's hard to know what you've got until you get there." Fortunately, there are many days when the sky is blue, the winds are calm and not a cloud or fogbank threatens anywhere. Then there are the other days.
The many small, one or two-person manual Flight Service Stations that used to be scattered around the country are rapidly disappearing. With them go the weather observers who provided weather reports and advice on local conditions.
But in their place are machines that report weather. Unlike human observers, these Automated Weather Observing Systems (AWOS) take an observation once a minute and broadcast it on an aviation radio frequency; most also have a telephone number for an easy check on weather during preflight. AWOS frequencies and telephone numbers are available in the FAA Airport Facility Directory (AFD) booklet. The newer version of the equipment, called Automated Surface Observing System (ASOS), adds a measurement for precipitation.
Now, if only an AWOS could be installed at every mountain airport and along every ridge line....
What's a pilot to do when the nearest weather report is a hundred or more miles from the destination?
"I just call ol' Joe, the airport manager and ask him what the sky looks like," declared one mountain pilot. "He might not be certified by the National Weather Service (NWS) but he's lived long enough in that little valley to be able to tell a scattered high cumulus condition from a really low overcast with drizzle."
Many of the smallest airports in the West closest to prime mountain getaways offer no FBO, no fuel, no phone and no weather observations. No foolin'. The village manager is often the airport manager, and the telephone number is village hall. But even a bored file clerk can look out the window and help you comply with the "all available information" requirements of the FARs for preflight planning.
An airport manager or local pilot often times can tell you about hazardous conditions never mentioned through official channels. "It's rained buckets the last two weeks, so watch that big dip at the south end of the runway. It's so soft it'll eat your nosewheel alive."
OFF #7: The FAR's require a pilot to collect "all available information" during preflight planning. For isolated mountain airports, airport managers or village clerks are worth calling to see if they can help in filling out a preflight weather picture.
Effect of Wind on Takeoff and Landing
When I was learning to fly in the flatlands of the East, my instructors were wary of winds more than 15 or 20 knots. "Too likely to cause an accident," they would say.
In the West, instructors are equally cautious about wind but are often willing to train students, under carefully controlled conditions, in higher winds. "I don't want my student's first experience in higher-than-normal winds to be at some isolated mountain strip when help is hours away," said one CFI.
In some parts of the West, high winds are expected at certain times of the year. It's no wonder that airports in the West usually use chains instead of ropes for tiedowns. Strong winds are a factor in mountain flying for two reasons. First, strong breezes near the ground can spring up suddenly and provide an instant and unexpected opportunity for use of advanced crosswind landing skills. Second, high winds around mountains can cause extreme turbulence and strong up-and-down drafts and provide more than enough reason to cancel a flight.
Contrary to popular belief, some of the heaviest winds and the strangest wind behavior are found in the high flat plains rather than mountain valleys. One spring afternoon I landed twice, once at Fort Sumner, then at Clovis, New Mexico, just a few miles down the road. In that short distance, a 25- or 30-knot steady wind at Fort Sumner had diminished to virtually nothing at Clovis. That sort of "heavy winds here but calm just down the road" phenomena happens surprisingly often in high country.
Handling a strong wind on takeoff or landing in the high country is no different than at lower elevations, except that groundspeed will be higher in high density altitudes, and all those crosswind techniques your instructor taught you will be useful in the high country, including some that you may have forgotten. Remember how to position ailerons and elevators when taxiing in a strong wind, "climbing into" a wind from the front and "diving away from" a tailwind?
In flat, lower terrain, the amount of wind affects a pilot's "go or no-go" decision mostly in terms of crosswind, possible turbulence aloft or fuel reserves on cross countries. In mountainous terrain, effects of wind on an airplane are a much larger factor: strong winds tend to curl around mountains and produce virtual "sideways tornados" (rotor clouds) and up-and-downdrafts that test the strength of any airplane or pilot.
One of the first pieces of advice you'll hear on your mountain-flying checkout is to always consider the wind before taking off. Wind speeds of 25 or 30 knots on the ground virtually guarantee much higher speeds near mountain and ridge tops, and the resulting turbulence and up-and-down drafts are more than most pilots care to challenge.
Cloud signposts that warn of such conditions include a Foehnwall cloud (also called a "mountain cap" cloud), a rotor cloud and altocumulus standing lenticular clouds.
OFF #8: When winds howl in the high country, experienced pilots lash their airplanes to the ground with heavy chains. But they also keep proficiency in crosswind landings, just in case.
Ever since moving back to the East Coast, I've marveled at the difference in the thought processes of pilots planning VFR cross-country flights.
Here in the busy Boswash (Boston-Washington) corridor, a VFR pilot will often draw course lines based primarily on a desire to stay out of Class B, C or D airspace. Through long experience, pilots have found that routings planned through these chunks of tightly-controlled airspace all too often result in ATC phrases like "aircraft calling, stand by" or "remain clear of the Class B airspace". For many VFR-only pilots, avoidance of these areas (or perhaps unjustified fear of ATC) is a primary consideration in flight planning.
In the wide open spaces of the West, avoiding ATC is usually one of the last things on a pilot's mind, if only because there isn't much ATC in those wide-open spaces. First priority goes to maximizing survivability.
In other words, careful VFR pilots prefer valleys. Staying in valleys or over relatively flat terrain keeps a greater percentage of aircraft performance and minimizes the effect of wind hurtling over ridges or mountain tops. Density altitude is always a consideration, and staying a couple thousand feet lower than the peaks adds measurably to performance.
Also, lower terrain is usually much friendlier in the event of an unexpected stop. Ground tends to be more level, trees are fewer and civilization gathers in valleys so help is closer.
Of course there aren't always nice, wide, green valleys running directly from Point A to Point B. Still, a detour including as much friendly terrain as possible is good practice.
Survival is a related issue. "Assuming you lived through the crash, how would you survive in that desolate wilderness until rescue?" my first instructor asked. Later, he showed me the personal survival gear he always carried. It included a gun for bringing home dinner in the wild, a mirror, matches and a host of other items. Also on board the airplane was a gallon of water; survival experts say dehydration is one of the most serious threats facing pilots downed in the wilderness.
It's possible to carry the right survival gear, but in the wrong way. One pilot who suffered a sudden stop in the high desert at the southern end of New Mexico and Arizona had been careful to buy two plastic gallon jugs of distilled water. It wasn't until the accident he realized that water in easily-burst containers doesn't help much.
Also high on the list of survival gear is a VFR flight plan, with a detailed routing. My first mountain instructor was heavily involved with the Civil Air Patrol. "Out here," he said, "we tend to either find you fairly quickly, or we don't find you at all." Many mountain pilots like to back up their official VFR flight plans filed with Flight Service with "unofficial" flight plans left with friends or family.
Instrument flying is much less commonly done in mountainous areas by pilots of non-turbocharged singles or light twins, in part because the Minimum Enroute Altitude (MEA) can be uncomfortably close to the airplane's service ceiling. In the summer, the heat pushes density altitudes so high that light airplanes struggle to stay at the MEA; in the winter there's very often ice in the clouds.
Those pilots who do fly IFR often find that the only airway routing takes them over high, rugged terrain that they would most certainly avoid if flying VFR. It's not impossible to fly IFR in light singles or twins in high terrain, but natural caution tends to limit flights more than in lower, flatter terrain.
OFF #9: Flight in valleys minimizes terrain hazards and usually provides a more hospitable environment in the event of a sudden stop. In any event, much Western terrain is very thinly populated; decide on survival gear and learn to use it properly.
Special Use Airspace
The sparsely populated areas of the West are also popular with the military, since low-level training can be done while annoying the fewest people.
Some of those government areas are immense, like the giant White Sands Missile Range restricted area that takes up a large chunk of south-central New Mexico. It's not uncommon to be able to see your destination clearly 60 or 70 miles across that restricted area but have to make a detour of an hour or more to get there.
The West has a disproportionate number of these "Special Use Airspace" areas, including prohibited and restricted areas, military operations areas (MOA), military training routes (MTR) and "controlled firing areas" not shown on aeronautical charts.
As a quick review, the types of special use airspace usually found in the high country are:
Prohibited area: flight is prohibited, usually for reasons of national security.
Restricted area: flight is subject to restrictions when the area is in use. Information can be obtained from the "controlling agency" or the nearest FAA Flight Service Station. If you are high enough to contact the FAA Air Route Traffic Control Center for the area, "real-time" use information may be available.
Military Operations Area: there is no restriction to VFR flight, although military operations in the area may be hazardous. A Flight Service Station within 100 miles of the area should have information on the schedule for that area. Many pilots just prefer to avoid any MOA; those who choose to fly through keep their eyes wide open, and getting radar advisories from ATC (if possible) is a big help.
Military Training Routes: although marked on sectional aeronautical charts with a thin gray line, MTRs can be deceiving. The thin gray line only marks the centerline of these routes followed by high-speed military aircraft; the actual width may vary from just a mile or so to several miles on either side of that centerline. It's virtually impossible for a civilian pilot to know the actual width of an MTR.
On charts, a "VR" denotes a "visual route" and an "IR" shows the centerline of an "instrument route". If the route numbers have only three digits (i.e., VR 009 or IR 234), that route is flown above 1,500 feet AGL; four-digit numbers (i.e., VR 1006 or IR 4225) are flown below 1,500 feet AGL.
Controlled Firing Area: many pilots are not aware of these, since they are rarely mentioned in ground school and do not appear on aeronautical charts. These (usually small) areas allow tests of rockets, missiles or explosives when air traffic allows. A "spotter" is stationed on a high point of ground near the test site to warn testers of the approach of light aircraft.
Special use airspace, especially MOAs and MTRs, takes up a much greater chunk of Western real estate than most pilots realize. I once charted the exact dimensions of all the special use airspace in New Mexico and overlaid it on a state aeronautical chart, and most of the state was blocked out. It looked like a labyrinth impossible to navigate.
In truth, different chunks of such airspace have floors and ceilings that allow pilots to navigate over or under, or part-time hours of operation. Many of the chunks are MOAs or MTRs, which do not prohibit civilian flight.
One frequently traveled route on the high plains of the West is blocked by a large MOA that would require a wide detour. The floor of that MOA is only 500 feet AGL, though, so it's possible take a direct route by staying under the MOA. Do I hear a chorus of protests about minimum altitudes?
It is true that FARs require a minimum altitude of 500 feet over "other than congested areas", but there is another part of that rule that says (in effect) that lower altitudes are OK over "sparsely populated areas" as long as you can make a safe landing after engine failure and stay 500 feet away from any person, vessel, vehicle or structure. In much of the West, calling an area "sparsely populated" would be an overstatement, unless you count groundhog and wolves.
Other pilots prefer to maintain a higher altitude and take their chances with high-speed military activity in an MOA, or just accept long detours. Isn't it wonderful to live in a free country?
In any event, always use current charts so you'll know how to deal with special use airspace. The airspace officer for the White Sands Missile Range told me not long ago that the military usually catches about three pilots a month penetrating his restricted area, in which there is "artillery, aerial gunnery, guided missiles" and other hazards he is reluctant to talk about.
"And almost invariably those pilots are navigating with road maps from the local gas station," he said. As Forrest Gump said in the recent movie of the same name, "stupid is as stupid does."
OFF #10: Good flight planning, using current charts and a solid knowledge of special use airspace, is just as important in the high country as elsewhere.
Wind as a Weather Factor
One of the surprises I found when transitioning to mountain flying was that wind in mountainous areas was much more than just a number on a groundspeed readout or an annoyance on takeoff or landing.
In fact, wind in mountainous areas can be just as important as ceiling or visibility when making a go or no-go decision. In addition to the effects of wind you already know as a flatlander, wind in mountainous areas:
The usual rule of thumb among mountain pilots is to avoid flying if the winds are reported as more than 25 or 30 knots.
In flat land, winds like these would be a factor only on takeoff or landing or for fuel planning, but in mountainous terrain the winds whistle up and down mountain slopes, creating both turbulence and weather. Just as Mr. Bernoulli predicted, they accelerate as they round the top of mountain ranges, so 25 or 30 knots at the nearest reporting station may be just a hint of velocity at higher elevations.
Visualizing the behavior of wind in mountainous terrain isn't difficult. Imagine wind flowing up one side of a mountain range, zipping over the top and cascading down the lee side. Can you visualize the downdraft you'd be fighting if you paralleled the mountain range on the lee side?
Now consider flying on the windward side of that mountain, where an updraft provides continuous free power. Which would you choose?
Of course, a flight doesn't always enjoy convenient valleys between point A and point B. In fact, sometimes you may have to go eastbound or westbound to get to your destination, flying right over those ridges with the updrafts on one side and the downdrafts on the other.
Approaching a ridge on the updraft side is quite exhilarating, but approaching from the downwind side and getting caught in that downdraft is quite another feeling. Experienced mountain pilots have a cardinal rule: always stay in a position that allows you to turn away, toward lower terrain. By approaching ridges at a 45 degree angle, rather than head-on, the turn downhill and away from the ridge is much shorter. A sudden downdraft encounter close to a ridge is no time to have to negotiate a 90-degree or greater turn just to aim toward lower terrain.
Upslope winds can also be used effectively to gain altitude after a high density-altitude takeoff from an airport in a valley. Like so much else in mountain flying, reading about the technique isn't the same as actually trying it.
My instructor and I had a nearly full load of passengers in the turbocharged Piper Saratoga one warm summer day, ready to depart an idyllic 6,360-foot elevation airport nestled deep in a valley north of the Gila wilderness area, just a few miles from the Arizona border.
We got off in ground effect, but even with turbocharging our rate of climb was slow. "Here, let me show you what I've been talking about," he said, and we headed directly toward the awe-inspiring slope to the northeast of the runway. "Can you visualize the wind pushing up that slope on this side of the valley?"
I nodded, fascinated with how closely we were flying to the side of the slope. "The closer you get, the stronger the effect," he pointed out. By the time our wingtip was just yards from the mountain slope, paralleling it, the updraft was very noticeable. The VSI zoomed upwards, and my instructor was all smiles. "See" he said. "It works!"
A thorough checkout in mountain flying is not a luxury for flatlanders who would challenge high country. It's a necessity.
OFF #11: Visualizing the wind is the first step toward using it to help offset the ill effects of density altitude. It will also make obvious the need to approach ridges at a 45 degree angle, for a quicker getaway toward lower terrain.
Mountain Wave and Cloud Types
On days with moisture in the atmosphere, it's much easier to spot potentially damaging winds in mountainous areas. Three cloud types: altocumulus standing lenticular, rotor, and foehnwall are signposts pointing to a peculiarly strong phenomena known as the mountain wave.
Mountain wave is caused by strong winds blowing over jagged terrain. Some research has shown mountain waves can be produced by hills as low as 300 feet above terrain, although massive mountain ranges are usually involved in severe wave action. Do not discount the power of mountain waves: one such wave is strongly suspected in the crash of a United Airlines 737 near Colorado Springs in March of 1991.
Strong mountain waves exist when there are large differences in pressure in a stable air mass that stretches across mountains. If the mountains weren't there, the flow of air from an area of high pressure to an area of low pressure would be nothing more than a good headwind or tailwind.
But mountains interrupt the smooth flow of air, forcing it to flow up mountainsides (orographic lifting) and holding the air aloft. The naturally stable airmass, of course, wants to return to its original level as soon as possible, and once past the mountain range, the lifted air plummets down the lee side like water over a dam.
In strong systems, the air mass may tumble well below its original level, bounce off the ground and hurtle back skyward in a wave action that extends far beyond the mountain range that created the phenomena. In the Rocky Mountains, satellite pictures have shown mountain waves going as far as 700 miles east of the last mountain range.
With access to recent weather information, pilots can make a good prediction of when a strong mountain wave will occur. Signs to look for include:
The strongest waves occur in January and February, although strong polar outbreaks of air moving south have been known to cause mountain waves as early as September and as late as May.
One of the most common indicators of a strong mountain wave is a lenticular cloud, a lens or almond-shaped cloud that is frequently at the very peak of the wave action. These so-called lenticular clouds sometimes appear in stacks or layers that appear stationary. On aviation weather reports, these altocumulus standing lenticular clouds are coded "ACSL". They are a sure sign that wave action is taking place.
If the lenticular clouds appear smooth, the air is probably moving up and down with fairly smooth undulations. When the mountain waves builds to a crescendo, like beach surf, lenticular clouds will reveal the roughness with frayed or ragged edges. A smooth ride is not likely in this condition!
Another cloud sign of mountain wave is a rotor cloud, often seen in strong waves just below the mountain peaks. Seen from the ground or in flight, rotor clouds appear stationary. Don't believe it: time lapse photography reveals that these virtual sideways tornados are continuously forming on the upwind side and dissipating on the downwind side. Updrafts and downdrafts in rotor clouds have been measured at more than 5,000 feet per minute, and experts say that the severity of turbulence in these clouds is exceeded only by a tornado. Speculation is that the United 737 crash at Colorado Springs was the result of the airplane being turned upside down by a rotor cloud.
The third cloud type that can indicate a mountain wave is the "foehnwall", or "cap" cloud. With enough moisture on the windward side of a mountain peak, a "cap" of stratus clouds will form around the peak and may slide down the lee slope for a considerable distance. As a rough guide, the further down the lee slope of the mountain the cap falls, the stronger the wave.
And keep in mind that mountain waves, like many other mountain flying cautions we've talked about here, are not an everyday occurrence. Flying in mountainous terrain is not more difficult or significantly more dangerous than flying in lower, flatter terrain; it's just different. Proper initial training, a good checkout, experience and a healthy dose of caution will provide you with many hours of exciting, gratifying mountain flying time.
OFF #12: Lenticular, rotor and "cap" clouds are signs of mountain wave, a particularly strong manifestation of how mountains make weather. Preflight planning and conservative flying will minimize hazards of this condition.
There's one other facet of high country flying, especially in the high desert areas, that catches pilots by surprise. It's the turbulence.
"Fly early in the day or toward evening," caution mountain flying instructors. "The middle of the day is liable to beat the living stuff out of you."
The warning is true all year, but the heat of summer in the high desert produces thermals and convective activity that, some days, may make you wish you'd stayed home. Flying before 10 AM or after 5 or 6 PM during the summer helps considerably and helps preserve the supply of "sick sacks" that ought to be kept in the airplane. Besides, the starkly beautiful Western landscaped is even more breathtaking when bathed in the low, golden rays of early or late sunshine.
On my very first mountain flying checkout, there was what most Western pilots would call "moderate to severe" turbulence. At the time, I had over 3,000 hours of flatland flying but my knuckles were white on the yoke.
Have you looked at the official definitions of turbulence in the Airman's Information Manual recently? "Moderate" turbulence is defined by "...causes variations in indicated airspeed... occupants feel definite strains against seat belts. Unsecured objects are dislodged."
"Severe" turbulence, on the other hand, means being tossed violently against seatbelts, with large, abrupt changes in altitude and airspeed. On my initial checkout, it was severe. I was concentrating on maintaining some semblance of altitude by jockeying power and attitude while trying to stay within 30 or 40 knots either side of maneuvering speed.
"Don't bother trying to maintain altitude," advised my instructor. "It's just not worth it, and you'll wear yourself out in a short flight."
For VFR flying in those kind of conditions, most Western pilots are happy to accept thermals as free power, knowing that subsequent downdrafts will be along shortly. Once I'd learned to accept the power of Mother Nature, aeronautical life became much easier.
Of course, maintaining an altitude is necessary if ATC requires it in a terminal area, or if flying IFR. But in the uncrowded skies outside of the few terminal areas of the West?
There is an FAR (91.159) that requires even or odd altitudes plus 500 feet, depending on magnetic course, when in level flight. But that rule only applies when flying more than 3,000 feet above the surface. Above jagged terrain, pilots of singles and light twins may frequently not be more than 3,000 feet above the terrain. And when even the valleys start at 6,000 or 7,000 feet and the mountains may tower to 12,000 or more, it's hard to stay above 3,000 feet AGL without oxygen anyway.
OFF #13: If VFR in heavy turbulence and not required to maintain an altitude by ATC, let Mother Nature have her way. Life is too short to do it any other way.
One other Western phenomenon I'd never seen in all my time as a flatlander is the dust devil. Dust devils are small, low-power tornados. They twist and dance along the desert floor in the American Southwest, stirring up the dust that gives their name. Dust devils are most common during the summer. You can usually see them coming, but predicting their path is not possible. They vary in strength, but are strong enough to turn perfectly good airplanes into scrap metal.
In fact, I hit one on climbout one day in a turbocharged Cessna 206. The air had been relatively calm when, at maybe 200 feet above the ground, the airplane felt like it was a bone being shaken by a dog. I instinctively shoved the nose over to maintain airspeed and a second later was out of the turbulence, but the adrenaline continued to flow for several minutes.
A year or so later, I was doing an airport inspection at a rural Indian strip in western New Mexico. There were no tiedown chains on the ramp at this airport, which is used primarily as an evacuation point for the Indian Health Service hospital there, so I just parked the Cessna 172 on the ramp and went about the business of inspecting. I was measuring an approach slope at one end of the runway when the corner of my eye caught something moving. It was a dust devil, moving in from the southwest and traveling fast. I started running for the unsecured airplane on the ramp, but the dust devil continued straight for the airplane and was gaining on me.
I reached the airplane and jumped into the cockpit, hoping to add enough weight and use the controls to keep the airplane upright if the dust devil hit. It did, and I did. Like my encounter while climbing out a year before, it was all over in a second, and the airplane stayed on its feet. A few months after that, I was visiting an FBO near the Colorado border and he showed me pictures of a customer's airplane that was loaded onto a truck. One wing had been bent back at an obscene angle. "Dust devil," he said. "Guy just parked it there, waiting for fuel. Insurance people declared it a total loss."
OFF #14: Watch for dust devils or other high winds, and always tie down your airplane. Chains (not ropes) are standard at Western airports for a reason.
As you might suspect, radio (and radar) contact can be spotty in the West, especially at the lower altitudes where many of us general aviation pilots roam. In fact, a few Western pilots relish the independence of flying without the security blanket most of us take for granted. Must be the cowboy spirit of rugged individualism.
But the holes in radio (and especially radar) contact can be unnerving to flatlanders comfortable with constant FAA surveillance. I'll never forget one such pilot, who flew into Santa Fe last year with his wife for a seminar on mountain flying. He had never been west before and was highly agitated.
"They lost me!" he screamed. "I was just descending through 9,000 feet and the controller said 'radar contact lost' like it was nothing!" Then he wanted to know why Santa Fe didn't pick him up on terminal radar, and I had to break the news gently: Santa Fe doesn't have terminal radar. He was incredulous, and most anxious to head back east where his radar blanket was nearly always there, warm and comforting.
There are some long stretches without radar coverage in the West, at least below 10,000 or 11,000 feet; FSS communications are better, but there are still areas where a climb to near-oxygen altitudes is needed to hear the voice of an FSS. Fortunately, Remote Communications Outlet (RCO) facilities are being installed in many of those remote areas. Using those new outlets is easy; most offer a common FSS frequency that can be used for both calling and listening. The sites and frequencies of the RCOs are shown on aeronautical charts.
Be sure to include both your frequency and location on your initial callup when using these RCOs, since a specialist at one of the new automated FSSs may be listening for a dozen or more of these sites. A sample callup might be, "Big City Radio, Cessna 12345, 122.3, Dinkysville."
There are also a few local FSSs at non-tower locations that still offer Airport Advisory Service on 123.6. Until they're replaced by RCOs linked to automated facilities, they'll continue to offer the usual wind, weather, altimeter, runway in use and known traffic.
Pilot reports, especially with changing weather, are greatly appreciated by high country FSSs since weather observers or AWOS/ASOS units can be few and far between. The Flight Watch frequency of 122.0 isn't always reachable from valleys in the high country, but any FSS briefer will be glad to take a report on any usual FSS frequency.
Some VOR stations can also be used to communicate with the FSS; a "shingle" box underneath the VOR information box on a chart will identify the associated FSS. This valuable feature isn't always available, since the new Hazardous Inflight Weather Advisory Service (HIWAS) sometimes takes over the voice frequency; the legend on each aeronautical chart will tell.
OFF #15: Knowing all the ways to communicate with Flight Service and offering pilot reports can add peace of mind on any flight, not only for yourself, but also for those who follow you.
The lowly VFR flight plan — oft forgotten by pilots anxious to charge off on a cross country — takes on special significance in rugged terrain. "Out here, we either find you in a matter of hours, or we don't find you at all," my first mountain-flying instructor told me earnestly. "The first day is crucial to survival."
Unlike their IFR cousins, VFR flight plans are only a tool for search and rescue. In more populated parts of the country, many pilots omit filing VFR flight plans on the theory that any "off-airport landing" (often unkindly referred to by newspapers as a crash) will have concerned citizens calling 911 anyway.
In the West, however, an off-airport landing is likely to disturb only bears or jackrabbits, none of whom will come to your aid. Very few flatlanders have any real conception of what the term "sparsely populated" really means until they've flown in the West; the sudden enlightenment quickly convinces many pilots that VFR flight plans are worthwhile.
When filing VFR flight plans, the old aeronautical advice is as true now as it ever was: plan your flight, then fly your plan. Searchers have a tough enough time finding pilots who stay on course.
Keeping filed legs short is one way to maximize your chances of being found quickly in the event of a sudden stop. The popular "round-robin" VFR flight plan, which takes in every leg of a long trip and ends at the airport of departure, will not only delay the start of any search for you but will also require searchers to look along your entire route. It's much better to file short legs, opening and closing flight plans at each point along the way.
Position reports can take the guesswork out of a search should you have to stop short of your destination. Especially in the isolated West, position reports used to be the primary means of air traffic control; now they're used largely to keep search and rescue missions short. IFR position reports use the mnemonic PTA TEN: Position, Time, Altitude, Type of flight plan, Estimate to the next reporting point, and the Next reporting point beyond that, and using that format will give the search and rescue folks the most information should they need it.
An example might be, "Tucumcari Radio, Piper Arrow 12345, 122.6, Ft. Sumner, position report." After the FSS specialist acknowledges, you could confidently transmit, "Piper Arrow 12345, Ft. Sumner at :14 (14 minutes past the hour; presumably the specialist knows what hour it is), 8,500, VFR, Otto VOR at :47, Albuquerque." If you make an unscheduled stop later, at least the searchers won't look along your route prior to Ft. Sumner.
An abbreviated report suggested by the Aeronautical Information Manual includes just the aircraft identification, position, time, whether on a VFR flight plan or not and the points of departure and destination. But how about those areas of the West where communications with the FSS are marginal, at best? Telephones, "assumed off" times and relays through other aircraft can all be used to get the message through.
Assumed off times work very well at remote airports where FSS communications are available only through the telephone. After planning and filing the VFR flight plan, let the FSS specialist know to activate the plan at a specific time (presumably the time you listed for takeoff). If the specialist doesn't hear from you by that time, the flight plan will be activated just as though you had called on the radio for activation. Needless to say, be sure to call if you don't get off as planned, or your takeoff time changes enough to seriously affect your listed time enroute!
Relays through aircraft flying overhead work sometimes, but knowing which frequency the overhead pilot is monitoring sure helps! Common possibilities include Unicom frequencies, Flight Watch on 122.0 (good below 18,000 feet) or the ARTCC (Center) frequency for the area.
OFF #15: VFR flight plans are well worth filing, activating and closing, no matter how cumbersome the process.
Radar Traffic Advisories
Even though radar coverage is not ubiquitous in the West at lower altitudes, it's still worth checking with the Air Route Traffic Control Center (Center) to see if VFR Flight Following is available. If so, it's wonderful insurance.
As always, VFR Flight Following is provided by controllers on a workload-permitting basis, so don't count on this service to replace conventional safeguards such as VFR flight plans.
Center frequencies for a particular sector are plainly noted on IFR low-altitude enroute charts; local pilots will undoubtedly know the frequency by heart. Some state aeronautical charts also feature Center frequencies just because VFR Flight Following is so valuable.
No (Official) Flight Plan
If all else fails — or even if it doesn't — many mountain pilots use the "unofficial" flight plan method. It involves asking your spouse, co-worker or friend to notify authorities if you don't show up when planned.
It takes a little planning for this option to work: distressingly often, a distraught spouse will call the sheriff's office to report a missing pilot but can't furnish the "N" number, aircraft type, route or any other useful information. Using a standard FAA flight plan form will include most of the information necessary to start a search; adding the destination contact, with phone numbers, is very helpful.
Getting Checked Out
Learning to fly high terrain safely is a little like learning to cook: reading everything written about the subject is wonderful preparation, but it can't replace practical experience. In the kitchen, your first try at cracking eggs may produce only an annoying clean-up job, but suffering a "broken yoke" while learning mountain flying is much more serious.
Many high-country FBOs advertise mountain flying checkouts, but (except for a few) the curriculum is not a formal or rigid group of skills and procedures. Depending on your level of skill and knowledge, a basic mountain flying checkout might take as few as 2 or 3 hours. An exhaustive checkout that includes many of the finer points of mountain flying may take several days.
Most of the former flatlanders I know have been both happy and safe by starting with the basics and letting their experience build as they enjoyed high country flying. Naturally, they were careful to plan flights that did not exceed their limitations, even as their proficiency grew!
Types of aircraft used in mountain flying vary, but most are the same ordinary tricycle-gear airplanes you'd find at lower-elevation airports. One difference you'll notice: there are far fewer of the lowest-powered airplanes, like Cessna 150s or 152s, or Piper 140s. Ramps in high country tend to fill with Cessna 172s and 182s, and Piper Cherokee 180s or even Arrows, because the density altitude degrades sea-level performance so severely. Surprisingly, there are not a plethora of turbocharged airplanes usually available for rent.
And yes, tailwheel airplanes are also available. True bush-style pilots who routinely fly into raw, untamed dirt strips carved out of mountainsides usually prefer high-wing tailwheel airplanes for several reasons, not the least of which is ground clearance for the prop and wings. Not having a nosewheel that could drop into a pothole and break off, or cartwheel the airplane, is also appreciated.
OFF #16: Many flatlanders are happy to learn the basics of mountain flying, wading in cautiously to practice their skills before taking instruction for more challenging terrain or situations.
Elements of a Checkout
Every mountain flying checkout should include both an explanation and demonstration of density altitude problems, how to take advantage of (and avoid the dangers of) the effects of wind in mountainous areas, wind and weather conditions to avoid, route planning and basic survival.
Early on in a checkout, mountain flying instructors will emphasize some basic rules. Among the most common:
Each mountain flying checkout will be different, not only because of varying skill and experience levels of pilots but also because mountain flying instructors must work with the terrain (and airports) they have. The following is by no means an all-inclusive list.
Nonetheless, some sample elements of a good checkout might be:
OFF #17: In mountain flying, three of the most important rules are:
State Aviation Agencies
One oft-overlooked resource for pilots planning flights in the beautiful high country of the United States is the expertise of the aviation agencies (or bureaus, departments, or divisions) of the various states.
Every state has some form of aviation agency, usually a small part of that state's Department of Transportation. The biggest responsibility of these agencies is helping ensure that public airports are kept up, and aiding local communities (who usually own the airports) with engineering and sometimes even financial aid.
Since state aviation personnel evaluate these airports on a regular basis, they often are good sources for information about the airports. As part of an agreement with the FAA, many states do the regular official "5010" airport safety inspections and keep copious files on those airports. State personnel are also often in contact with the locals responsible for the airports.
Those state aviation agencies are also the ones responsible for putting out state aeronautical charts. Many times, those charts have useful information not included on the usual sectional or WACs issued by NOS, including local attractions or Center sector frequencies.
Especially in mountainous areas, states also often take the lead in installing special navigation aids or warning lights. Also, states will often foot the bill for installation of automatic weather observation systems (AWOS or ASOS), which take weather observations once a minute and report those continuously on a special frequency. The same reports are usually also available by telephone.
Several state aviation agencies in the West also have experienced mountain pilots on their staff, either as part of the state's executive pilot crew or as a safety coordinator who works closely with the FAA Aviation Safety Program. Some of the best advice — usually free — is available from them.
In many of the sparsely populated parts of high country, night VFR may just as well be IFR because of the lack of lights on the ground or other visual references. "And those mountains don't have obstruction lights, either," point out wise old mountain instructors. "It's easy to get lost at night, and pilots who don't know exactly where the mountains are will have a short flight."
My own first night checkout in mountainous terrain was a revelation. We started by doing touch and goes in the pattern for runway 26 at Albuquerque International, with right traffic. The city lights below were nothing short of incredible in the cold, crystalline mountain air. On downwind, I was entranced enough to extend my downwind a bit, to the edge of the city where most of the lights stopped abruptly. From daytime sojourns, I knew very well that was where the 10,678 foot Sandia Mountains started, but I couldn't distinguish a thing.
My instructor tapped me on the shoulder. "See out there ahead?" she asked. I nodded, looking at the solid blackness. "I wouldn't wait much longer to turn base if I were you."
It was true: beyond the city lights, the mountain and the sky melded as one velvet blanket, total blackness that gave no hint of the sudden stop that would soon occur unless I made that right turn.
Later, after I'd done enough night cross-country to start to feel comfortable, it wasn't quite so frightening. You can bet, however, that I'd avoid night VFR in mountainous terrain that I hadn't first thoroughly scoped out during the daytime.
OFF #18: A full moon helps, but complete familiarity with the terrain gained during the daytime is absolutely essential for night flight in the mountains.
During my time promoting aviation safety in the high country, there were several fatal nighttime accidents in my area. As with 80-85% of all general aviation accidents, pilot error contributed to all of these.
One I particularly remember wasn't caused by high density altitude, jagged terrain or mountain wave. No, the cause was "loss of visual reference over sparsely populated terrain at night," something warned about in every private pilot ground school ever taught but more common in the wild West than elsewhere because of the paucity of population.
The pilot decided to get an early start and took off before daylight from the 8500-foot runway. Runway lights provided a good reference for the first few seconds of the takeoff, but beyond those lights was virtually nothing but the blackness of desert floor. Apparently he had forgotten that a night takeoff over trackless, lightness terrain is an instrument maneuver, much like flying in the middle of a cloud.
Another heartbreaking accident involved a night freight pilot flying VFR in a Cessna 210 on an overcast, dark night. He somehow missed a pass through the mountains, perhaps by relying on an erroneous VOR radial, and splattered himself on a rocky ledge not far from the peak. As I mentioned, those cumuli-granite are awfully hard to see in the dark, and a mis-set or mis-read VOR radial (or other electronic guidance) can have devastating results.
Making an approach to a mountain airport at night can get a pilot's adrenaline flowing, particularly if the airport is surrounded by close-in precipitous terrain. At one resort-area airport, the state Aviation Division helped the municipality install runway lights, then added solar powered strobe lights (with storage batteries) to the peaks of the mountains surrounding that airport. For pilots who know the area well and are familiar with the arrangement, it seems to work well, but I've never been brave enough to try that approach at night.
For night cross countries, it's obviously safer to stay over lower terrain. Personally, I prefer to follow Interstate Highways whenever possible; not only does the route usually follow valleys but an emergency landing site is always available. On the downside, interstates don't always go everywhere you might want to go.
One other consideration for night cross-country flights: hypoxia. Staying comfortably above obstructions, even in wide valleys, usually requires altitudes where oxygen is recommended, if not required. Remember that one of the first symptoms of hypoxia is a gradual dimming of night vision, and that oxygen is recommended for flight above 5,000 feet M.S.L. at night. Often the ground starts higher than that.
OFF #19: VFR at night in mountainous terrain calls for a set of skills and cautions not usually needed in the flatlands. A very thorough night checkout and lots of caution is essential.
IFR flight in the high country isn't nearly as common as in lower terrain, at least in non-turbocharged single-engine airplanes. There are several good reasons, including:
Many high country pilots are quite content to fly in wide valleys or over rougher terrain when enough altitude can be maintained, considering the density altitude, aircraft performance and oxygen requirements. But some find canyons irresistible. There is a certain thrill to canyon flying, struggling up or down a narrow corridor with sheer vertical rock walls on either side.
Canyon flying is truly one of the more advanced parts of mountain flying, and should not be attempted until the basics are mastered. Many canyons have a sloping bottom, usually running downhill toward the south. If you're determined to fly in the canyon, it's best to gain some altitude, fly to the head of that canyon and then fly downhill, so that lower terrain is always in front of you. For obvious reasons, you should never fly up a canyon if there is not adequate room to turn around.
Some canyons are wider than others; some are just too narrow for safe flight. One rule of thumb used by experienced mountain fliers is to avoid parts of canyons where the walls are closer than twice your turn radius.
Normally, canyons are flown on the updraft side to take advantage of the extra lift, just as in wider mountain valleys. This works very well, except when the canyon is very narrow and your ability to get turned around is paramount. In that case, it might be better to struggle along on the downdraft side, so that your attempted 180-degree turn runs you into an updraft, rather than a downdraft. Also remember that a tailwind increases your radius of turn.
How closely should you fly to the canyon wall? It depends largely on the stability of the air; in stable air you may feel comfortable just a few yards from the wall, while turbulence that has you fighting to keep the airplane right side up calls for a little more distance. Especially in narrower canyons, the upslope and downslope sides may be hard to determine. The solution is easy: try one side, and if that's not it, try the other.
One of the most dramatic canyons I've ever seen is that of the Rio Grande river, coursing its way southward from the mountains of Colorado and Northern New Mexico. It's in a wide valley just west of Taos, New Mexico, and the river cuts a deep, winding but very narrow gorge through the smooth valley bottom. The scenery along that canyon is absolutely spectacular, even as seen from above the rim of the canyon at 7,500 or 8,000 feet (rim elevation is a little above 7,000 feet M.S.L.). I'm sure the view from below the rim would be even more thrilling, but I've never explored it. It's just too narrow for me, even though I know some pilots who fly it.
One of the reasons a thorough checkout is necessary for canyon flying is that it's easy to follow your map into a blind canyon that dead-ends at an inopportune time. It must be a horrible feeling, seeing the end of your life approaching at something under 100 knots and being unable to do anything to avoid it. Wing-overs or chandelles to get turned around are usually impractical because of the low speeds when a turn is required; a steep bank at slow speed is sometimes successful, depending on the width of the canyon.
One caveat if you decide to try the quick turn-around at the end of a blind canyon: extending some flaps will increase your margin above stall, but will also increase drag and — if heavy turbulence is a factor, and it often is — will decrease the load factor tolerance of your airplane by as much as half!
OFF # 20: Flying in canyons can be exhilarating, but real canyon-flying is definitely "advanced" mountain flying and requires careful preparation, instruction and navigation.
When you were first learning to fly in the flatlands, how much training attention was given to survival after a forced landing in the wilderness? Not much, right? Contrary to popular opinion, not many "survival situations" in the high country are caused by engine failure. Instead, pilots find themselves boxed in by high density altitudes, downdrafts or narrow canyons and must make emergency landings. After the dust settles, those basic survival skills barely thought about before suddenly become paramount.
Chances are you'll have time to think about those survival skills, too, while the Civil Air Patrol or state agencies are looking for you. Thanks in part to mandatory ELT's but mostly to dedicated search and rescue personnel, most crash sites are located within 72 hours. That sounds very reassuring, but remember that 72 hours is THREE FULL DAYS AND NIGHTS! Could you live that long on a frigid mountain slope, especially if you had only light summer clothing and were injured?
Three basic steps taken well before any flight in sparsely populated country can dramatically improve your chances of survival after an accident. They are:
During and After the Crash
During the forced landing, all your attention is quite naturally focused on getting down and stopped with as little damage to the airplane and occupants as possible. One pre-landing item oft forgotten: unlatch and push ajar one of the cabin doors before touchdown, since any buckling of the (relatively) light airframe may jam the door shut.
Once that horrible grinding sound from outside has ceased, there is a very real potential for fire. An immediate post-impact survival action is to get away from the airplane until the engine has cooled and spilled fuel has evaporated.
It's tough enough for a normal city dweller to survive in the wilderness, but any injuries make life that much more precarious. First, check yourself and passengers for injuries. If there is major bleeding, shock or stopped breathing, those are obviously first priority. Then tend to lesser injuries, including cuts or scrapes that could produce an infection. One caution: be very careful if it is necessary to remove injured persons from the aircraft. Unless there is immediate danger of fire or explosion, it may be better to leave those with suspected neck or back injuries in place, since even a slight movement may worsen the injury.
Once serious injuries have been tended to, it's time to come in from the wind and rain or snow. Construct a temporary shelter (always an important element of any survival course), and start a fire immediately if needed. Then drink some water (you did bring the water supply, didn't you?), and make hot drinks if possible.
Then rest. It may take several hours to get over the shock of the crash. Stay with your downed airplane unless you are absolutely sure that you are within easy walking distance of help. In most cases, you won't be. If you do decide to travel, leave a note giving your planned route, and then stick to that route.
Organize Camp, Consider Signaling, and Note Food
As time and strength permits, improve your temporary shelter for protection from the elements. Collect all possible fuel for your fire, and make note of possible water supplies and edible animal and plant life.
Laying out ground-to-air visual signals will help potential rescuers, but unless those symbols are at least 10 feet in size, they will be difficult to spot. Almost anything that provides a color contrast with the surrounding terrain is useable: strips of cloth, wood, stones are often available.
A list of standard symbols and much other helpful survival advice is provided in the Aeronautical Information Manual, but the most common symbols include:
V — require assistance
X — require medical assistance
Y — yes, or affirmative
N — no, or negative
(an arrow) — proceeding in this direction
SOS — the international symbol for distress
Other signal devices might include a mirror or any bright piece of reflective metal. If you can, punch a hole in the center of the metal piece for sighting. Especially on hazy days, searchers can see the flash of a mirror before you can see the rescue aircraft, so flash the mirror in the direction of the rescue aircraft as soon as you hear it.
OFF #21: Forced landing skills, survival tactics and first aid knowledge isn't needed often, but when it's needed, it's REALLY NEEDED! Don't let yours get rusty when flying in the high country.
Some Additional Thoughts
As I re-read all four parts of this series on mountain flying, it seems as though the cautions and warnings have taken the upper hand. The "don't do this" or "be careful of that" or "this is hazardous" advice in this series makes mountain flying sound difficult, dangerous and mostly impractical.
But perhaps that's the nature of instructional articles on aviation safety. If this series had described only the stark beauty of flying among incredible rock formations, or the majesty of swooping along wide valleys with glistening peaks on either side, or the clean, fresh air of pristine mountain resorts, it wouldn't have lived up to its promise of increasing aviation safety for flatlanders wishing to become mountain pilots.
Thinking back over those years I worked and flew in the great American West, there were only a couple times when I experienced real heart-pounding fear, or even great trepidation. In large part, that was because I got a good basic mountain flying checkout first, then waded into the more complex parts of mountain flying slowly and cautiously.
No, most of my experiences while mountain flying were "good" thrills and chills, and that's true of most former flatlanders who take the safe and sensible route to becoming mountain pilots. Among the most special moments I remember during my transition to mountain pilot are:
I also lost several friends to aviation accidents during that time, but only a couple of those accidents could truly be attributed to anything special about the mountains. Just as I was writing this series, word came of an accident involving a good friend that appeared to be a typical "box canyon" accident. First indications are that he was caught in the box canyon in classic fashion, unable to get turned around in time.
Another apparently involved a combination of ingredients: some serious turbulence over a mountain range in IFR weather, an attitude indicator that may have misbehaved at the wrong time and two pilots fighting over control of the airplane.
But most were caused by factors that had little or nothing to do with rugged terrain. One pilot argued in on a dark night after losing visual reference over the desert; another was cruising just a few feet above the terrain and apparently let himself get distracted long enough to hit a small hill.
The saddest for me was the accident that caused the death of my first mountain flying instructor, a fine individual who knew mountain flying backwards and forwards. His cause of death: burns from an engine fire in flight. First reports were that a fuel injector line broke and started spewing fuel over the hot engine. The mountains had nothing to do with the accident.
Quiet Your Irrational Fears and Enjoy
I talked with a Florida pilot the other day who was planning her first cross-country out West, and she wanted a route to her destination that would "avoid mountains."
"I don't want any part of it," she said, adamantly. "I've heard about all those updrafts and down drafts and mountain waves and things and it scares me to death." All the talking I could do was to no avail, and there's no question but what her determination to avoid mountains would help her avoid most mountain-flying problems. But it made me think: suppose she had approached getting her private pilot certificate in that same way?
"No sir, not me," she might have said. "I've heard about stalls and 45 degree steep banks and fast-talking controllers and I don't want any of that! I just want to be able to takeoff and land."
OFF #22: Learning to safely fly in high country is one of the greatest thrills any pilot could know. Enjoy!