Some airports are just tougher than others. Short, narrow, and high are descriptive terms for Mountain Air (2NC0) in Burnsville, North Carolina. The specs, as currently reported, are a 2,900-foot long by 50-foot wide runway at a 4,432-foot elevation. The private strip is nestled in the mountains with a country club and restaurant overlooking the runway—a ground-based “Vultures Row.” Navy carrier pilots will feel right at home as the watchers grade and comment on every landing. The only thing missing is the closed-circuit TV that records everything for the entire ship to see.
Flying into Mountain Air is definitely an A-game activity, much like a carrier landing. Over the last 19 years, nine accidents were reported—and perhaps a few that didn’t hit the record books (true of all airports). Two were fatal, including one that I wrote about involving a Columbia 350.
All the crashes involved high performance aircraft either going long or over-compensating and winding up short. Included were a Baron, a Comanche, a PC-12, a Mooney, a Saratoga, a Cirrus, the aforementioned Columbia, and a Citation (still scratching my head on that one). The latest is an A36 Bonanza that just crashed this month. No details from official sources yet. You can review the other accidents on the ASI website. By the way, when reviewing airport data from AOPA’s flight planning page on the website, there’s a link to ASI’s airport accident page (look for the ASI logo) that’s an opportunity to not go where others have gone before at any particular airport.
The information for the airport as quoted in one of the NTSB reports: “Mountain Air Country Club Airport, Burnsville, North Carolina, was a private, mountaintop airport with an elevation of 4,436 feet. The paved surface for Runways 32 and 14 was 2,875 feet long and 50 feet wide. Runway 14 began atop a steeply sloping terrace with an abrupt drop-off at the approach end, departure end, and left side of the threshold. The published Airport Information Summary card stated, ‘Runway 32 has an uphill incline of 46 feet. Runway 14, thus, downhill 46 feet. Recommended approach unless there is significant tailwind is runway 32.’ The card also stated, ‘High banks on right hand side of approach ends of both Runways 14 and 32, within 20 feet of edge of pavement… Mountainous terrain in area. Caution: Mountain turbulence, approach downdrafts, density altitude.’”
Several thoughts: One is that the performance data for most Part 23/CAR3 aircraft is a “wee bit optimistic” for most of us as stated in the Truth-in-Performance article. We recommend starting with a 50 percent pad for whatever the manufacturer says to clear the 50-foot obstacle, and then as you get really good maybe scale back a little. Note that approach downdrafts and mountain turbulence are not part of the computations—nor can they be. Do you feel lucky?
Please understand this is not a slam against Mountain Air airport, merely a reminder that sometimes either we or our aircraft may not be up to the task on a given day due to weather, proficiency, or the interaction between the hardware and the available real estate. Sometimes driving up the hill to enjoy the view after landing at the valley airport is a really good idea.