Bill Standefer is Chairman of the Mountain Flying Training Program for the Colorado Pilots Association and has been teaching this class for about 27 years.
In Colorado, 54 mountains are over 14,000 feet and 600 are over 13,000. There are more than a dozen public use airports that invite pilots to come see their beautiful cities and enjoy the mountains.
But as in all things, “Know before you go…” is especially true when flying over or through the mountains.
Flying in the mountains is not a hit or miss kind of thing. It calls for precise flying made safer by knowing three things.
1. You have to know how to read a map.
2. You must be aware of weather and terrain.
3. You have to know where and how to turn around.
Mountain flying is a calculated risk where you are constantly evaluating and re-evaluating the options available to you at any given moment. How steep is the terrain? Don’t fly up a box canyon and don’t count on being able to climb out of the terrain.
ALWAYS FLY YOUR EXPERIENCE LEVEL.
Check the weather. Can your aircraft handle the wind? Does your route have opportunities for landing sites? Choose your route before you go. A slightly longer route over better terrain may be a better choice. Remember, the safest route is not always the shortest. Safety has no price.
When possible, avoid staying over the high terrain for long distances.
Always make sure your data is downloaded before your flight. GPS is not good for planning in the mountains, although some major passes have AWOS so you can get real time weather.
The thin air changes the way an airplane flies. The reduced weight of the air has less effect on control surfaces. Lift is reduced. Drag is reduced giving a higher true airspeed even though indicated airspeed remains constant. Horsepower is reduced because of fuel burn being a 1 to 16 factor by weight the air in the engine
When flying in valleys, watch for updrafts and downdrafts. Avoid flying down the middle of a valley due to wind shear and turbulence. If you can’t get an updraft on one side, try the other. Only fly in a canyon when there is adequate room to allow a turnaround maneuver. Otherwise, fly the terrain. That is, gain altitude and over-fly the canyon area from the high end to the low end. Approach ridges at a 45 degree angle and 2000′ higher to maximize your ability to turn away from the ridge prior to crossing. If you need to make a steep turn get as close to the edge of your turning space as you can. As a mountain pilot you must continuously position your aircraft to give the best selection of options available.
You cannot learn mountain flying by reading about it. Mountain flying is different because mountains limit your flight options. The effects of route, wind, weather, density altitude, emergency preparation, and aircraft performance are different and require a different pilot perspective. A pilot who views mountain flying as a routine flight is heading for a trap. There is always an alternative to making a dangerous flight, no matter how inconvenient. Have an alternate plan; be flexible. The ultimate alternate plan is cancellation.
As one pilot said of his flying in the mountains, “I was riding along just as pretty as could be. It was a little bumpy but not too bad. I was flying about 500 or 600 feet above the ridge, just about to clear it, when I got hit by a downdraft. It just pointed the nose straight down, and within two seconds, I was on the ground. It was like somebody took a fly swatter and hit a fly. It was just whack! And I was on the ground.”
Another thing to watch for out for are lenticular clouds. They are elongated shaped clouds that normally align at right angles to the wind direction. They appear to be standing still and are associated with a phenomenon known as mountain wave turbulence.
“When stable air crosses a mountain barrier…air flowing up the windward side is relatively smooth. Wind flow across the barrier is laminar – that is, it tends to flow in layers. The barrier may set up waves in these layers much as waves develop on a disturbed water surface. The waves remain nearly stationary while the wind blows rapidly through them. The wave pattern is a ‘standing’ or ‘mountain’ wave, so named because it remains essentially stationary and is associated with the mountain. The wave pattern may extend 100 miles or more downwind from the barrier. ”Pages 83-84 Aviation Weather, AC 00-06A, 1975
If you are thinking about mountain flying it is always good to take a class. Even if you are an experienced mountain flyer and just haven’t done it for a while, it would be beneficial to take a class.
Remember, always fly an airplane with your head, not your hands.